Two major new polls show that Americans are increasingly anxious about the direction of the US economy. In a Washington Post/ABC News poll earlier this week, 44 percent of Americans said the economy was getting worse, not better, while 57 percent disapproved of President Obama’s handling of the issue. Now comes a New York Times/CBS News poll indicating that “Americans are more pessimistic about the nation’s economic outlook and overall direction than they have been at any time since President Obama’s first two months in office.” A stunning 70 percent of Americans believe the country is headed on the wrong track. And only 29 percent of Americans think that a major reduction of the federal budget deficit—the stated top priority of leaders of both parties—will create jobs. Fifty-six percent of Americans say cutting the deficit will cost jobs or have no impact.
That stat alone provides what Greg Sargent calls “the clearest evidence yet that official Washington’s prioritization of the deficit over jobs is completely out of sync with public opinion.” It also lends credence to John Judis’s argument that “Obama has chosen the wrong economic message.” Writes Judis today:
[Obama] has allowed Republicans to make a case that things are getting worse, and he has cooperated with them in taking measures that will actually make things worse. He has allowed Republicans to set the terms of the debate. It has been about the perils of deficits and debt. That is not just bad economics; it also leads Democrats into a political cul-de-sac….
Obama has tried to carve a liberal niche within this retrograde political framework by charging that the Republican plan to cut the deficit would get rid of Medicare and would keep the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy. That’s all well and good, but Obama is still playing on Republican turf. And it might not work. The last Democratic presidential candidate who based his campaign on deficits was Walter Mondale in 1984. Mondale probably would have lost to Ronald Reagan in any case, but he would have won more than Minnesota and the District of Columbia. The other Democratic candidate who tried to make deficits an issue was Al Gore in 2000, and he lost to a candidate he should have defeated easily. And you can be sure that Bill Clinton in 1992 didn’t focus on deficits in running against George H.W. Bush.
I know Obama and his political advisers think that by emphasizing deficits they are going to win over independent voters. But as I have argued earlier, Obama is pursuing a political fiction. The independents he needs to attract are primarily white working-class voters in places like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. They may care about deficits as a stand-in for what they see as wasteful spending on undeserving groups. But their primary concern, as they demonstrated in 2008, is jobs and the economy.
Of course, you could still argue that deficits really do matter and that even if Obama is acting in a way that is politically stupid, he is doing the right thing. Unfortunately, that is not the case either. We need a long-term plan for curbing deficits as a percentage of GDP, but what we need to do now is ensure that a full recovery takes place. That requires just the opposite of what Obama has agreed to do. If you think budget cuts will revive the economy, look at what is happening in Tory England as a result of Prime Minister David Cameron’s budget cutting. Britain, which had been recovering from its recession, is now projected have grown .3 percent over the last six months.
What should Obama have done and be doing? He should focus relentlessly on creating jobs and speeding economic growth. He should have presented programs to do so, and if the Republicans blocked them, then they would have to take the blame if the economy stalls or actually turns down again. And above all, the president should not acquiesce in, and even praise, measures that will harm the economy and his own re-election chances.
A lethal cocktail of soaring gas prices, stubbornly high unemployment and a lingering foreclosure crisis has the country in a sour mood. Convincingly addressing those issues, rather than embracing the Republicans’ alarmist rhetoric about the debt, will help Obama firm up the country’s shaky recovery and solidify his own re-election prospects for 2012.
Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics