WASHINGTON -- The usual beef against Beltway politicos is that they spend too much time reading the polls. But to a group of progressives gathered on Thursday to talk about jobs, the problem is that the capital's elites don't heed the polls nearly enough.
Survey after survey of public opinion finds that unemployment and the struggling economy are the most troubling issues for most Americans. But policymakers from both parties are madly pursuing a different priority instead: deficit reduction.
And they want to curb federal debt not through tax increases on the rich, which the public supports, but through spending cuts on popular programs.
The result, certainly in the short term, would be the opposite of job-creation.
"It's not the public that's the problem, it's the elite conversation that's the problem," pollster Celinda Lake of Lake Research Partners said Thursday. If today's politicians are being driven by the polls, Lake said, "it's not any polls I've seen."
On and off the podium at Thursday's event -- a summit on jobs organized by the progressive Campaign for America's Future -- the profound disconnect between public opinion and the public agenda was a constant theme. And it left many of the speakers more than a little dumbfounded.
"The idea of national austerity in this environment is truly mind-boggling," said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.
"Anybody who thinks you can deflate your way into recovery is delusional," said American Prospect co-editor Robert Kuttner.
"We can't slash our way to prosperity, we have to invest," said economic equity advocate Angela Glover Blackwell.
Indeed, what's so exasperatingly self-defeating about the current epidemic of deficit hysteria is that the best deficit reduction program would actually be to create jobs -- and bring the tax base back up.
"We know the solutions," said Leo Hindery, who heads the U.S. Economy/Smart Globalization Initiative at the New America Foundation. "They're staring us in the face. They're timeworn by the women and men who preceded us ... including Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt."
Among those solutions: A new WPA and Civilian Conservation Corps; an honest-to-God Industrial policy; maybe an infrastructure bank like the one proposed by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who spoke at Thursday's event; and any number of other ideas like the ones I outlined in my ill-fated America Needs Jobs series.
What's needed now, said Roger Hickey, one of the event's organizers, is a robust, job-creating agenda that progressive candidates can run on in 2012 -- an agenda that shows that "we're not just asking people to have patience and cross their fingers and hope the economy gets better."
What explains the extraordinary disconnect between the public agenda and public policy? The toxic effects of mounds of corporate money on the political process was pretty much everyone's top choice on Thursday, but it wasn't the only one.
Lake, for instance, said part of the problem is that many of the nation's most prominent economists see things from the Wall Street perspective. And, of course, there's another usual suspect: "The public is horribly served by the news media right now," she said.
(The Nation's Chris Hayes recently blamed the "incomprehensible" disconnect on "a governing elite that is profoundly alienated from the lived experiences of the millions of Americans who are barely surviving the ravages of the Great Recession.")
Kuttner put his finger on another problem, which is the lack of a genuine grassroots social movement advocating for jobs.
Looking back through the last 50 years of American history, he said, in every single area where society has made great strides, "people built a movement with immense personal risk and immense courage."
Launching that sort of movement around jobs was, as it happens, the central goal of Thursday's meeting. And coming just hours after Gov. Scott Walker used a quarterback sneak to break Wisconsin's public unions, several speakers spoke of a possible inflection point in the making.
Trumka said his message to Walker was a big "thank you." He suggested Walker be presented with the "mobilizer of the year award."
Walker's move was so outrageous that it might be enough to change the national conversation "from deficit hysteria to where it belongs, to jobs and the right to build middle-class living standards," Trumka said. "This is a debate that we've wanted to have for 20 to 25 years."
Now, he said, "it's our job to channel this Midwest uprising."
Wade Henderson, the head of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said Walker's "unprecedented assault on collective bargaining and the right to organize is arguably the most significant challenge to civil and human rights in this early part of the 21st century." The response to it, he said, "may well determine the future of this great nation."
Robert Borosage, the co-director of the event's sponsoring organization, described how the powerful, spirited grassroots movement that got Barack Obama elected president basically came to a dead stop right after the election, figuring Obama would then take the lead in such areas as job creation.
It didn't work out that way, of course.
"What Wisconsin is doing is pushing the start button," Borosage said. "And now we've got to build again."
Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for the Huffington Post. You can send him an e-mail, bookmark his page; subscribe to his RSS feed, follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get e-mail alerts when he writes.