The Source of Obama’s Trouble

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The New York Times

The Source of Obama’s Trouble

The Obama administration and Democrats in general are in trouble because they are not urgently and effectively addressing the issue that most Americans want them to: the frightening economic insecurity that has put a chokehold on millions of American families.

The economy shed 36,000 jobs last month, and that was trumpeted in the press as good news. Well, after your house has burned down I suppose it's good news that the flames may finally be flickering out. But once you realize that it will take 11 million or more new jobs to get us back to where we were when the recession began, you begin to understand that we're not really making any headway at all.

It's also widely known by now that the official employment statistics drastically understate the problem. Once we take off the statistical rose-colored glasses, we're left with the awful reality of millions upon millions of Americans who have lost - or are losing - their jobs, their homes, their small businesses, and their hopes for a brighter future.

Instead of focusing with unwavering intensity on this increasingly tragic situation, making it their top domestic priority, President Obama and the Democrats on Capitol Hill have spent astonishing amounts of time and energy, and most of their political capital, on an obsessive quest to pass a health care bill.

Health care reform is important. But what the public has wanted and still badly needs above all else from Mr. Obama and the Democrats are bold efforts to put people back to work. A major employment rebound is the only real way to alleviate the deep economic anxiety that has gripped so many Americans. Unaddressed, that anxiety inevitably evolves into dread and then anger.

But while the nation is desperate for jobs, jobs, jobs, the Democrats have spent most of the Obama era chanting health care, health care, health care.

The talk inside the Beltway, that super-incestuous, egomaniacal, reality-free zone, is that President Obama and the Democrats have a messaging or public relations problem. We're being told - and even worse, Mr. Obama and the Democrats are being told - that their narrative is not getting through. In other words, the wonderfulness of all that they've done is somehow not being recognized by the slow-to-catch-on masses.

That's just silly. People are upset because they are mired in economic distress and are losing faith that their elected representatives are looking out for their best interests. They've watched with increasing anger as their government has been hijacked by the economic elite. They know that the big banks that were bailed out by taxpayers can borrow money at an interest rate of near zero while at the same time charging credit-card holders usurious rates of 20 to 30 percent.

They know that the financial fat cats are fighting the creation of a truly independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency. They know that while ordinary Americans are kept out of the corridors of power, the elites with their lobbyists and lawyers and campaign contributions have a voice in every important decision that is made.

It's not the message that's a problem for Mr. Obama and the Democrats, it's the all-too-clear reality. People know that the government that is supposed to be looking out for ordinary people - for working people and the poor - is not doing nearly enough about an employment crisis that is lowering standards of living and hollowing out the American dream.

This is not just a short-term crisis. There are many communities across the country in which the effective jobless rate is higher than 50 percent. Many state and local governments are grappling with disastrous revenue shortfalls that are forcing cuts in services and layoffs, and threatening the viability of even a modest national economic recovery.

A University of Michigan survey of consumer sentiment in February found that 60 percent of American consumers expect to receive no income gains at all in the year ahead, the worst finding in that category in the history of the surveys.

The Republican Party has nothing in the way of solutions to Americans' economic plight. It is committed only to the demented policy of trying to ensure that President Obama and the Democrats fail.

But the fact that the Republicans are pathetic and destructive is no reason for the Democrats to shirk their obligation to fight powerfully and relentlessly for the economic well-being of all Americans. There are now six people in the employment market for every available job. There is a staggering backlog of discouraged workers who would show up tomorrow if there were a job to be had.

The many millions of new jobs needed to make a real dent in the employment crisis are not going to materialize by themselves. Mr. Obama and the Democrats don't seem to understand that.

Bob Herbert

Bob Herbert, former staff columnist for the New York Times focusing on politics, urban affairs and social trends, is now a distinguished senior fellow at Demos.

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