It is now time to seriously ask this question: have Barack Obama and the Democratic party lost a high-stakes — to them and to the country — gamble based on a key assumption?
The gamble: that political capital was worth expending on health care reform even to the point of alienating key parts of the winning 2008 coalition. The assumption: that they could risk the political capital, since by 2010 measures to the improve the economy would begin to show at least some tangible, high-concept, easy-to-see and sense degree of stabilization on the job loss front.
The problem now: the latest news on job losses was just plain lousy (even though there is wiggle room for spin on the long term possibilities but Americans who lost or are worried about their jobs could care less about wiggle room). First impressions matter, and Obama now seems poised on the political precipice as someone who vowed to put Americans back to work during the campaign but after a year in office job loss remains a real problem. And some experts don’t expect this ill to go away any time soon.
Timing is everything but the genuine question becomes: Obama says “this is our moment,” but given the gravity of the job picture is he in danger of losing — or has he already lost — his moment?
This isn’t a question asked out of partisanship (believe it or not there are some of us who are truly sick and weary of 21st century seek-and-destroy political polemics, the most recent example coming from this guy who has now frittered away his once iconic status except among partisans).
Now, the New York Times reports, Obama is trying to pivot to jobs. This is different than the obnoxious media slogan “tried to change the subject” which assumes that the reporter is a psychic and knows exactly what is in the official’s mind. It may not always be trying to change the subject. It may be that the official is focusing on things that need to be done besides providing material for an ongoing story and the needs of journalists to get follow up stories on an issue of their choosing in a media cycle).
President Obama keeps trying to turn attention to “jobs, jobs, jobs,” as his chief of staff has put it. But he is finding that it can be hard to focus on any one issue when so many demand attention, often unexpectedly. And as the lackluster employment report on Friday suggested, showing concern is not the same as showing results.
The president and his party have now entered a midterm election year in which they expect to lose seats in Congress after big gains in the last two cycles. Just how many they lose will probably hinge more on pocketbook politics than on any other issue: whether voters believe the still-sluggish economy, as evidenced by the jobless rate, is reviving, and whether Mr. Obama and Congressional Democrats deserve credit or blame.
The employment situation is only the most visible of the economic policy challenges that Mr. Obama faces.
The context on the job front is not a happy one, the Washington Post notes:
The job market remained in a deep funk in December, according to a government report Friday showing that employers view the economic recovery as too weak and too fragile to begin hiring again on any large scale.
The pace of layoffs has slowed sharply in recent months, but businesses still cut 85,000 net jobs in December, the Labor Department said. The unemployment rate was unchanged at 10 percent, but economists suspect this is only because hundreds of thousands of frustrated workers stopped looking for jobs.
With the jobless rate stuck in double digits and Democrats worried that the weak economy will prompt voters to turn on them in fall elections, the White House plans more public events in coming weeks to underscore its concern about jobs and the economy. On Friday, President Obama called the employment report a setback during his announcement of $2.3 billion in tax credits to support renewable energy, which the administration says will create 17,000 jobs.
“The road to recovery is never straight,” Obama said, “and we have to continue to work every single day to get our economy moving again.”
Senate Democrats, meanwhile, have begun crafting a bill to encourage job creation, which Democratic aides said will likely focus on small business, infrastructure spending and “green” energy. The House passed a $154 billion jobs bill in December.
The report was not without bright spots; for instance, revised figures for November showed that the nation had actually added 4,000 jobs that month. It was the first month of job creation since December 2007.
U.S. President Barack Obama unveiled a $2.3 billion tax credit on Friday to boost jobs by promoting clean energy, as new data showed the country’s unemployment rate remained stuck in the double digits.
Obama said the credit, from funds earmarked under a $787 billion stimulus package he signed last February, would create 17,000 U.S. jobs and be matched by an additional $5 billion in private capital.
“Building a robust clean energy sector is how we will create the jobs of the future, jobs that pay well and can’t be outsourced,” Obama said.
“This initiative is good for middle-class families. It is good for our security. It is good for our planet,” he said.
High unemployment is one of Obama’s most pressing domestic challenges and a monthly payroll report released on Friday served as a reminder labor market conditions remain grim. U.S. unemployment was unchanged at 10 percent in December, while businesses unexpectedly shed 85,000 jobs.
“The jobs numbers that were released by the Labor Department this morning are a reminder that the road to recovery is never straight,” Obama said.
And the political outlook for Mr. Obama and the Demmies continues to look grim, the Christian Science Monitor notes:
Obama has long faced pressure from fellow Democrats to use his bully pulpit for the No. 1 issue of concern to Americans – high unemployment, still at 10 percent. The November midterm elections are fast approaching, and Democratic incumbents are becoming increasingly nervous. Nonpartisan political analyst Charlie Cook now says Democratic control of the House could be in jeopardy, come November.
Reuters’ James Pethokoukis lists 9 reasons why the Dec. jobs report is bad news for Dems which are right on the dime. The list must be read in full but here are the last two:
8. Combine a weak labor market – which may appear to be getting worse to voters – with the moribund housing market and rising gas prices, and you have a toxic triple threat that will be poisonous to Democratic incumbents and further drain Obama’s political capital.
9. Also, watch how these numbers play with Senate and House Dems thinking about resigning like Chris Dodd and Byron Dorgan. A big improvement in the jobs numbers might have reassured any worriers that 2010 might not be as tough as some currently think. Now it looks a bit more like the worst fears of Democrats might be realized: losing the House and a half-dozen or more Senate seats.
Timing is everything — in careers and career moves. Was the timing here — focusing out of political necessity on the long-sought goal of health care reform (you know you can’t get it in a second term after a ruling party loses Congressional seats, as is the historical custom) a good idea when the job situation remained so unstable.
On the other hand, the conventional wisdom even a year ago was that there was no easy fix to the job picture and that the situation could get worse.
But the latest job numbers truly seemed like a bucket of icewater — and ice — thrown in the face of if not sleeping politicos, then politicos seemingly consumed with long range agendas while many American families suffer and find getting new jobs difficult or impossible.
Is a pivot possible now? And how will the almost certain increased polarization and changed political dynamics after the November electios contribute to finding solutions to strengthen economy, rather than more chances to wring sound political sound bytes, zingers and accusations out of the next news cycle?
The jury is still out on Obama but polls suggest the jury isn’t looking too happy.
And the jury will be downright furious if they lose their jobs during jury duty.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.