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Obama Pivot to Business is Nonsense

First Posted: 01/25/11 01:20 PM ET Updated: 05/25/11 07:25 PM ET

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The word of the moment is "pivot." As in President Obama, when he addresses the nation tonight to fill us in on how things are going, will continue his supposed pivot toward business and job creation.

This, of course, implies that the president has previously been occupied with something else, a pursuit from which he will now pivot away. Presumably, he's pivoting away from alienating business and depriving the nation of the millions jobs that would surely have been created already had business leaders been courted and appreciated.

Think of this logic played out in movie scene. It is early 2009, and the newly arrived President Obama says something like: "Wall Street chieftains, all is forgiven for trashing the economy. You can keep your bonuses. In fact, here is a huge amount of taxpayer money with no strings attached." (Forget for a moment that this is pretty much what did happen; this is the movie version.) To which a chorus of Wall Street executives replies, "Thank you so much Mr. President! Because of your kindness and affection, we're going to immediately loan lots of money to innovative small business and order them to hire scads of people!"

One niggling question, though: Does this version of events make sense to anyone who is honest about how the world works -- which is to say, anyone besides a bunch of Democratic campaign strategists intent of stealing plays from the Republican playbook?

Who among us truly believes that the unemployment rate -- still stuck way above 9 percent--would be so much lower if Obama had spent the first two years of his term singing lullabies to the chief executives of the Wall Street institutions that enriched themselves at the expense of taxpayers and working people, rather than occasionally seeking to hold them to account? (And only rhetorically, at that.)

Well, a lot of my colleagues in American journalism, if their recent words are to be taken at face value, appear to believe this. The pivot toward business, conflated with a supposedly newfound attention to job creation at the White House, has saturated media coverage of the president's plans for tonight's State of the Union address. Pivot talk has been fueled by Obama's recent appointment of high-powered business people to senior administration positions, from Jeffrey Immelt, chief executive of General Electric, named last week to head a job creation body; to Bill Daley, the former JP Morgan Chase executive selected as the new White House chief of staff.

Pick up any major newspaper, peruse and major news outlet and you quickly encounter this entirely bogus notion served up as unquestioned fact: Obama is pivoting to business to create jobs.

Take, for example, this recent version of ABC's The Note, a widely subscribed tip sheet among the Washington press corps. Headlined "President Obama's Economic Pivot," the post describes the move as an attempt "to shift away from focusing on stabilizing the economy to growing jobs." Come again? How many ordinary people would consider economic stabilization to encompass something different from restoring jobs?

Or consider this post from the Atlantic Wire declaring the President's pivot away from "staving off economic collapse through government intervention to stimulating job growth in concert with corporate America."

You have to admire the successful messaging strategy adopted by the White House. Clearly, the administration officials who have been spending hours speaking on background with the reporters who cover economic policy in Washington have been finding some magic words. (And we in the press love words like pivot, because we are suckers for strategic insights and sports metaphors -- ideally, both at the same time.) The people at Camp Obama have executed their new strategy with the sort of discipline and competence not seen since the campaign that brought the president into office, surely one of the greatest political feats of all time.

But for those of us who prefer our coverage fact-based, you have to recoil at the shamelessness of this strategy, and the damaging way the nation is again being served a familiar equation from leadership (and complicit lazy beat reporters): Whatever pleases the heads of huge publicly-traded American corporations is the pathway to creating jobs.

Immelt, as has been widely noted, heads a corporation that has excelled at returning profits to its shareholders by boosting foreign sales and firing American workers. Nothing sinister here. Surely, healthy American multinationals have a role to play in boosting exports, and we would rather they be healthier than weaker. Companies will not hire until they see direct benefits in doing so -- sales they will miss if they stay too lean. But the General Electric story proves that making global behemoths stronger does not guarantee any new paychecks, and pretending otherwise merely obscures the costly and difficult work required to set things right.

In an economy shy of a serious engine for growth to replace the fantasies that came before --the real estate fairy tale, the dot-com bubble -- significant job creation is dependent upon an aggressive government role in the short term, one that can catalyze the private sector investment needed to get commerce humming.

That will depend upon the other items the president will need to include on tonight's list of talking points: substantially increased spending on infrastructure projects and support for clean energy initiatives. Both are potentially enormous sources of jobs, if sufficient smarts and dollars are directed properly.

But these two undertakings require that the president take on-- rather than co-opt -- the most decisive Republican talking point of all: the shameless fear-mongering that the budget deficit is such an imminent threat to the nation that we may as well not invest in anything, while dismantling much of public education and an already inadequate social safety net.

Absent a firm rejection of this dangerous talk in favor of a serious national investment campaign, the latest strategy for job creation will disappear into the rhetorical vortex as the campaign sloganeering it sounds like now.

We need to see the president pivot, all right, but not to this mythical place where blowing kisses to chief executives prompts them to start hiring people. Rather, we need a pivot back to where Obama seemed to be during his memorable campaign: forthrightly reckoning with the problem at hand -- an economy that has essentially stopped working for most of the middle class and working poor.

That is a problem that cannot be solved by pandering to business groups, but only by investing in sustainable economic growth. Which, come to think of it, is something that American business ought to like just fine.

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