Jobs, jobs, jobs. Throughout the presidency of Barack Obama, Americans have been preoccupied with jobs. Unemployed people need work. The underemployed need more work. The employed want salaries that go up instead of down.
The rich are worried too. The Depression of 2008-? is killing their stock portfolios.
Most presidents struggle to find the pulse of the people. Trapped in the D.C. bubble, they try to find out what voters want. Obama was lucky. He didn't have to do that. The U.S. was in the midst of an epic economic collapse in January 2009, and has been ever since. It's the only issue that everyone, rich to middle to poor, cared about. It still is.
In this single-issue environment, any idiot could have been a successful president. All Obama had to do was express sympathy and understanding while announcing a bunch of jobs initiatives.
Weirdly, though, Obama has focused on everything else except jobs: healthcare, gays in the military, gays getting married, more war against Afghanistan, new war against Libya, secret wars against Somalia and Yemen, the dreary showdown over taxes, budget cuts and the federal debt ceiling.
According to the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, Obama's approval rating is down to 39 percent. The crappy economy—and Obama's inaction—is the simple cause.
"What Happened to Obama?" Drew Westen asked in a much-passed-around New York Times op-ed. It used to be just me. Now everyone sane agrees that Obama's presidency has failed.
This is my favorite part of Westen's postmortem: "Those of us who were bewitched by his eloquence on the campaign trail chose to ignore some disquieting aspects of his biography: that he had accomplished very little before he ran for president, having never run a business or a state; that he had a singularly unremarkable career as a law professor, publishing nothing in 12 years at the University of Chicago other than an autobiography; and that, before joining the United States Senate, he had voted "present" (instead of "yea" or "nay") 130 times, sometimes dodging difficult issues."
Westen is nicer than I am. He left out the fact that Obama had an undistinguished career as a U.S. Senator.
Is Obama a secret pawn of evil plutocrats? Does he suffer a character flaw alluded to in Westen's piece, that he doesn't know who he is?
Maybe. But I don't think so. I think eight years of George W. Bush caused Americans to make a mistake. Obama was calm, so they assumed he was wise.
Obama is calm. He's calm that it's hard to tell if he's sentient. But that doesn't make him smart. Based on his record before and after becoming president, there's a better-than-even chance that he's not very smart.
Let's be logical. Let's assume that appearances don't lie—that Obama doesn't lose a wink of sleep over the fact that he's presiding over a disaster that makes 9/11 look like a joke.
Let us further stipulate, for the sake of argument, that Obama isn't stupid. That he's merely another cynical and/or corrupt politician. If nothing else, Mr. Cynical (But Intelligent) Dirtbag ought to care about getting reelected.
If I were in Obama's shoes, and I had any brains, if I wanted to turn those lousy poll numbers around, I'd hold press conferences to talk about jobs every day. I'd talk about jobs until the media was sick of it. Then I'd do it some more.
I'd spend two or three nights every week couchsurfing with families who were suffering, cameras rolling as I pretended to care about their silly problems with mean bosses and evil health insurers.
Most importantly, I'd set up next year's television attack ads. I wouldn't let a single week go by without proposing some piece of legislation related to creating jobs, alleviating the problems of the jobless, and increasing wages.
I'd send Congress huge publics-works bills. I'd ask them to hire millions of unemployed people to work for federal agencies. I'd push for higher unemployment benefits, payments that don't expire until you find a job. Tax breaks for companies that hire. Tax deductions for those that give raises. Penalties for outsourcing jobs. Keep the Bush tax cuts, but only for the poor and middle class.
Let the Republicans kill my ideas. All the better for my 2012 ad buy! "Republicans voted against new jobs for Americans 22 times. Against helping homeowners keep their houses 15 times. Republicans: They just don't care about you." You get the idea.
Of course, a president can accomplish a lot by executive order. Remember that story about how Apple had more ready cash than the U.S. Treasury? Since America obviously needs the money more than Steve Jobs, Obama could have nationalized it and given it to the states in order to bolster their unemployment compensation funds.
American voters are so defeated and disgusted that they no longer demand a president like FDR or LBJ who actually fights for them. They'll settle for one who goes through the motions.
The question for Obama and his advisors is: Are they smart enough to pretend to care about the only issue that matters to voters?