On Sunday, President Obama gave himself "a solid B+" for his first year in office. But the report card that matters, the midterm one issued by voters, is still 11 months away. At the moment, things are not looking great (consider the note sent home from teacher in the form of the president's and the Democratic Congress' plummeting approval ratings).
Luckily for them, there is plenty of time to course-correct. But the first step in correcting course is acknowledging that the course you're on needs to be changed. And it's not clear that the administration is ready to get out its compass and sextant. Particularly when it comes to the economy.
Exhibit A was offered on Sunday by Larry Summers on ABC's This Week, where he made it sound like everything's coming up roses, telling George Stephanopoulos, "Most professional forecasters are now looking for a return to job growth by Spring."
Stephanopoulos seemed dubious. "Let me pin you down on that," he said. "You believe the economy is actually going to be creating jobs in the Spring."
"That is the judgment of most professional forecasters," responded Summers. "That's right, George." Moments later, he returned to the talking point. "I believe, as do most professional forecasters, that by Spring the employment growth will start to be turning positive."
I instantly thought of Chauncey Gardiner in Being There, tossing around gardening forecasts: "There will be growth in the Spring!"
Later, on CNN's State of the Union, Summers went even further and declared the recession over: "Today everybody agrees that the recession is over. The questions are around how fast we'll recover."
Really, Larry? Everybody agrees?
Well, apparently not quite everybody. Take his colleague, Council of Economic Advisors Chairwoman Christina Romer. On NBC's Meet the Press, she offered a very different definition of recovery: "You're not recovered until all those people that want to work are back to work."
David Gregory wanted to be clear: "So in your mind, this recession is not over." "Of course not," replied Romer. "The people on Main Street and throughout this country, they are still suffering. The unemployment rate is still 10 percent."
In a blog post after his show, State of the Union host John King put a charitable spin on the mixed message:
"To be fair, Summers was speaking from a technical perspective; Romer more from the views of an American who still lacked a job despite some more encouraging recent economic data."
True. But which advisor will Obama be listening to as he heads into a midterm election in which his poll numbers are dropping while unemployment numbers continue to rise? If the only people who turn out to vote in 2010 are those "everybodies" Summers hangs his hat on -- economic forecasters living within shouting distance of Cambridge -- Obama and the Democrats will be just fine. Otherwise, some serious course correction is in order.
There is real anger out there, and it's clear that Summers still doesn't get it. During the midst of the bank bailout, we heard a lot of concerned talk about "Main Street." But since the government checks cleared, it's become obvious that it was just that -- talk. Obama's economic team didn't take the foreclosure crisis seriously and it's still not taking the jobs crisis seriously enough.
"What's a bit ironic to me is they were able to figure out how to help the big banks without any summit," Rep. Marcy Kaptur, co-chairman of the Jobs Now! Caucus, told the Washington Post. "But now that they are talking about helping people, it is a year later and they need a summit. What is that all about?"
If the Obama White House is going to change course in time to avoid hitting the looming electoral iceberg, the president and his advisors need to immediately jettison two false ideas that are taking them wildly off course.
The first of these is the notion that the public's widespread anger over joblessness and the bank bailout will be dissipated by the magic bullet of passing a health care reform bill. Over the last few weeks, I've talked to several high-ranking White House staffers and this idea seems as deeply entrenched among them as the idea of Obama's Kenyan birth is among the birthers. And about as valid.
Health care is vital, but it's still the economy, stupid. Especially since many parts of health care reform, even if it passes, won't take effect until 2014. Nate Silver has crunched the numbers. His conclusion: "I don't particularly expect a boost in the Democrats' numbers if they pass a health care bill: the plan, after all, has become somewhat unpopular."
The other false idea that I've heard from White House advisors is that, even if they take a hit in 2010, they're going to be okay for 2012 because they'll bring back David Plouffe and recapture the magic of 2008. If this is really their plan for 2012, they might do better to bring in James Cameron. Perhaps he could CGI in all the voters who turned out in 2008, inspired by the message of "Yes, We Can," and who are now watching disillusioned from the sidelines.
People know Main Street issues like jobs and foreclosures haven't been given the attention they require, and they also know when they're being condescended to.
Example? Also on This Week, Larry Summers talked about all the ways to create job growth that don't "have a direct cost." Because God forbid there should be a direct cost, as, say, with the bank bailout or the Afghanistan escalation. "It doesn't cost anything to encourage banks, as the president will be doing, to meet their responsibilities and expand the flow of credit to small business," said Summers. But how has "encouraging" banks to lend worked out so far? And encouraging is what pundits do. How about demanding, mandating, leading?
Last month I was on a panel at the Truman Library along with Joe Nye, Bob Kuttner, and Tim Naftali. The topic was "Presidential Leadership in Transformational Times." The event brought home a central fact for me: the sine qua non of great presidents has been their ability to course-correct. All great presidents veered off course -- it was their willingness to acknowledge in time when something wasn't working and make the necessary changes that made them great.
Naftali cited the example of John F. Kennedy who "comes to power wanting to be a transformational president" with "a set of ideas about government -- all of which turn out to be wrong."
But Kennedy was willing to "learn on the job." He never got the chance to run for a second term but, according to Naftali, "by 1963 he [had] changed his mind on all of these principles, these concepts that he brought into office." He still wanted to be a transformational leader, but realized that he'd have to do it in very different ways than he originally intended.
For Naftali, our most successful presidents "are ones who are flexible, smart, self-confident enough to take different kinds of advice and are, in the end, able to think outside the box."
Obama clearly meets the smart enough requirement. But there are two steps he must take if he is to course-correct. First: stop listening to Larry Summers. Second: stop thinking that reaching a consensus is the same thing as leadership.
During his interview with CNN's King, Summers repeatedly referenced the systemic roadblocks to reform. We live in a country, he reminded King, "with two parts of the legislative branch, the House and the Senate, and any approach to be viable has to be an approach that works for both of them... Adopting an approach that some people favor and that other people will block, that won't work if they have the capacity to block it."
True, but a transformational president has to move the Congress -- and the public, if need be -- beyond the limits of where they thought they were prepared to go.
A Democratic Congressman told me about a moment from the House Democratic Caucus meeting last week that brings home the urgency of the White House's need to course-correct. Massachusetts Rep. Mike Capuano, freshly returned from the Senate primary campaign he just lost to Martha Coakley, was asked to address his fellow Democrats and tell them what, after traveling around his state talking to voters, he had learned on the campaign trail.
Capuano didn't mince words. "You're screwed," he told them.
It's not too late for Obama to right the ship of state. But first he has to acknowledge he needs to chart a fresh course.