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Brown Shoots: Obama's Missed Opportunities for Economic Change
As spring dawns, the economy's green shoots have been trampled once again, first by the economic fallout from Japan's tsunami, and again by rising worldwide commodity prices.
The disruption of Japan's production revealed the soft underbelly of globalization -- the reliance on vulnerable global supply chains only as strong as their weakest link. Rising food and energy prices produce a toxic stew of inflation and unemployment.
This depressing news, of course, has political as well as economic consequences. Politically, it means that the incumbent party -- Obama's -- faces even tougher going in 2012.
Economically, rising inflation makes it that much harder for the Federal Reserve to keep resorting to very low interest rates to levitate a sick economy. At some point, the Fed's natural inflation-phobia will kick in, even though higher food and energy prices have nothing to do with overheated demand (with unemployment stuck near double digits, demand is still too low, not too high.) But as in the late 1970s, stagnation could turn into stagflation.
And the Republicans in Congress are compounding the crisis of prolonged recession and joblessness by slashing everything in sight -- throwing more people out of work.
Faced with the prospect of having to defend the administration's performance in an economy of still high unemployment, you might think the White House would be doing everything possible to highlight the Republicans' responsibility for the weak economy -- the perverse budget cuts, the unpopular assault on unions, the direct attack on Social Security.
Instead, the president has doubled down on his strategy of "more-bipartisan-than-thou." As the New York Times' Michael Shear wrote in a smart and skeptical piece last week,
"As they prepare to wage political war against President Obama, the potential 2012 Republican candidates are doing everything they can to draw sharp distinctions with him.
But Mr. Obama isn't cooperating.
Rather than emphasize his differences with potential Oval Office rivals or Republican adversaries on Capitol Hill, the president is taking every opportunity he can to embrace members of the other party as co-conspirators in his efforts to confront the country's challenges.
According to Mr. Obama, the two parties have cooperated -- or are showing signs of being willing to work together -- on education reform, tax cuts, energy security, economic growth and potential changes to an entitlement system that has become a drain on the nation's budget."
This must be occurring in a parallel universe somewhere. Republican collaboration with Obama is certainly not happening on earth. The president and his political advisers are evidently gambling that as the Republican budgeters and GOP presidential contenders grow more reckless and more extreme, he will just look more reasonable and more presidential.
Doubling down on bipartisanship did not exactly work in 2010, when the Dems lost 63 House seats, their worst off-year performance in modern times. Because of the Republicans' sheer extremism, it may work to re-elect the president by a narrow margin in 2012 -- but not to rekindle the enthusiasm of the groups that elected him in 2008 as a force for believable change.
Presidential elections are won or lost state by state, and you have to wonder how this strategy will rally economically distressed voters to the Democrats in key swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, or even Illinois.
At best, Obama wins narrowly next year, but the Democrats suffer huge losses in the Senate, where the numbers are stacked against them (11 Republicans up, compared to 23 Dems) and gains in the House but not enough to take back control.
There is latent support for a president to lead as the champion of hard-pressed regular people. But Obama keeps passing up the opportunities history deals him.
The Republican assault against public employees in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and elsewhere produced the largest gain in the approval ratings for unions in decades. By margins of nearly two to one, the public rejects the conclusion that public workers should take pay or benefit cuts to solve fiscal crises.
You wouldn't have expected government employees to be the poster children for broad economic distress, but the effort to blame the recession and the budget crisis on nurses, teachers, cops and firefighters backfired. Regular people saw these workers as their neighbors and fellow members of a beleaguered middle class, not as their oppressors.
You might have expected a Democratic president to seize this teachable moment to point out that the collapse of the economy and of government revenues was caused on Wall Street, not in state capitols or at union bargaining tables. But this president was too busy making amends for the hurt feelings of big business, preparing to unveil the next loophole in enforcement of the Dodd-Frank Act, and sending his fundraising associates to Wall Street with wheelbarrows to collect donations for his campaign.