In his Thursday afternoon kickoff remarks at a White House conference on jobs, Joe Biden invoked and, yes, mangled Samuel Johnson's famous aphorism that (correctly) reads, "When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."
The vice president was referring to the indisputably "dire and bleak" economic outlook when the administration took office last January. But Biden's words about how a hanging does "focus one's attention" could equally apply to the threat that double-digit unemployment figures pose to the continued employment of congressional Democrats after the 2010 elections.
A recent public-opinion analysis
by Democracy Corps, a group of Democratic consultants led by pollster Stan Greenberg and strategist James Carville, put it bluntly, "Voters' frustration with the economy, bailouts for elites, bonuses and spending...is fueling an increasingly anti-incumbent mood that is impacting everyone in Washington. But as the party in power, Democrats are suffering disproportionately."
Thursday's jobs summit (which brought 130 corporate leaders, small-business owners and economists to the White House) was a belated recognition by Barack Obama that he was losing the unemployment debate. Not only is the president suffering from the ravages of a depressed economy, but he is also being blamed for squandering taxpayer money in an effort to fix it.
It was telling that Biden Thursday described the administration's $787-billion stimulus package as "much maligned" and Obama called the $700-billion bank bailout program (which he inherited from George W. Bush) "wildly unpopular." Something is deeply wrong politically when the government's cures are as hated as the Wall Street sharpies who brought on the worst financial crisis since the Depression.
In recent months, Obama compounded the problem by coming across as interested in every issue under the sun except the one that will cause tens of millions of Americans to face a grim Christmas. The White House's agenda has been dominated by over-the-horizon concerns like health care reform (which, if it passes Congress, would not be implemented until 2013 at the earliest) and global warming (yes, the summer of 2038 will be a scorcher). The president's lengthy trip to the Far East seemed irrelevant to most voters and even the war in Afghanistan remains an abstraction for those without a direct connection to someone in the military.
Even when Obama did talk about the depressed economy his tone was cerebral and sometimes even oddly self-congratulatory. At a White House economic event in early November, Obama said, "We have pulled the economy back from the brink. We got good news last week showing that for the first time in over a year the economy actually was growing again." And prosperity is just around the corner. As Democratic media consultant Mandy Grunwald, who worked for both Bill and Hillary Clinton, said, "After spending the entire administration trying not to be Bill Clinton, the president could now use a dose of Bill Clinton's empathy."
When he first spoke at the White House jobs conference Thursday, Obama backhandedly acknowledged this empathy gap. "Sometimes in this town," the president said, ostensibly referring to everyone but himself, "we talk about things in clinical and academic ways. But this is not an academic debate. With one in 10 Americans out of work, and millions more under-employed, not having enough hours to support themselves, this is a struggle that cuts deep, and it touches people across this nation."
The next stop on the Obama feel-your-pain tour will be a Friday meeting with small business owners in a Pennsylvania town immortalized with a 1980s Billy Joel song: "We're living here in Allentown/And they're closing all the factories down." A slick White House-produced video, shown at the beginning of the jobs summit, included the owner of the Egyptian-Star Bakery in Allentown complaining, "Banks are not too interested in loaning you money right now."
The problem is what to do about the continuing lack of credit at a time when Wall Street -- without a hint of shame -- is again reveling in its let-the-good-times-roll megamillion bonus culture. Summarizing the results of the workshop sessions at the end of Thursday's conference, Obama noted, "If you are a small business, and in some cases a medium-sized business, even if you are profitable, then you're still seeing credit frozen."
But in response to a question from a Michigan business owner, the president also underscored the lack of an easy solution. "The bottom line is this: We know this is a priority. We are pushing as hard as we can to do this in a responsible way." About all that Obama could offer was the vague hope that congressional passage of another of his long-term initiatives, reform of financial regulation, would "provide the certainty and the framework . . . so that we can then help these banks more effectively do the right thing."
Since December suddenly has become lost jobs month, Obama has scheduled an economic speech for next Tuesday when he presumably will unveil new ideas for fighting double-digit unemployment. The problem is that neither the will nor the wallet is available for any major new programs. Although no one said it publicly Thursday, the administration's best hope is that the unspent funds from the president's stimulus package will generate as many as 2 million additional jobs. (Job-creation estimates are by nature imprecise: A new Congressional Budget Office report
calculated that the Obama stimulus package so far has produced or saved somewhere between 600,000 and 1.6 million jobs.)
With the yearly budget deficit running to 13 digits (there are a lot of zeros in a trillion), the White House feels like it has limited room to maneuver. Obama talked a good game at the jobs summit: "The single most important thing we could do right now for deficit reduction is to spark strong economic growth." But there are severe political constraints on how much additional the administration and the Congress are willing to invest in the quest for that economic growth.
At a Capitol Hill press conference Thursday morning, Nancy Pelosi spoke of dipping into unused (or returned) bank bailout money as a funding source for additional aid to the unemployed and new job-creation measures. About $100 billion would be available in TARP money (the bail-out program is technically known as the Troubled Assets Relief Program). But budget director Peter Orszag has recently suggested that the unused TARP money should be reserved for reducing the deficit.
Pollsters in both parties agree that the unemployment rate in the fall of 2010 will go far in shaping the outcome of the congressional elections. "The president's approval rating will matter a lot and that will be tightly linked to progress on jobs," said Democrat Stan Greenberg. Republican David Winston, who advises the GOP congressional leadership, was even more unequivocal: "For Obama and the Democrats, it's all about results on jobs. The Republicans can't challenge the reality of the pre-election unemployment rate. And the Democrats can't explain it away."
At the beginning of Thursday's we-care White House conference, Obama said, "The question that we have to ask ourselves today [is]: How do we get businesses to start hiring again?" If there was a new and compelling answer delivered at the jobs summit, it was certainly kept under wraps by the president in his closing remarks.
But that remains the right question as America is still reeling -- rather than really recovering -- from the worst economic crisis since the Depression. And the answer, as elusive as it seems today, will help dictate the future of the Obama presidency and Democratic control of Congress.
UPDATE: In a glimmer of good news for Obama (and the nation) Friday morning, the unemployment rate dropped to 10.0 percent. Also, the hemorrhaging of jobs has almost stopped with just 11,000 jobs disappearing in November, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some economists see these job-loss numbers (the best in two years) as a hint that ordinary Americans are finally beginning to feel the end of the recession.