At least one good thing has come out of the dismal May jobs numbers released last week: the president's re-election team has decided to make acknowledging the shaky state of the real economy part of its campaign message.
First, the now-familiar numbers: the economy added a net total of 54,000 jobs in May, around 100,000 fewer than had been expected. This comes on the heels of the equally dismal 1.8 percent first quarter GDP growth rate. What's more, the jobs numbers for March and April were revised downward by 39,000. Unfortunately, it's too late to revise upwards the intensity of the Obama administration's response to the jobs crisis over the past two years.
Instead, the White House wasted precious time pointing at ghostly green shoots, and joining the leaders of both parties in shifting the nation's focus from jobs creation to deficit cutting -- willfully ignoring the suffering going on across the country.
But now the numbers are so bad -- and November 2012 so close -- that the Obama campaign has decided it must, as Politico's Carrie Budoff Brown and Glenn Thrush put it, "temper some of the Morning-in-America optimism he'd hoped to run on."
This is truly shocking. Not that the president's team realizes its "Morning-in-America" parade is getting rained on, but that marching under that banner was ever considered in the first place. Even if the jobs numbers had come in as expected, at 150,000 -- or even if they'd come in higher than expected at, say, 200,000, and stayed there for several months, we're nowhere near Morning in America. Unfortunately, too much of the country appears to be closer to a Permanent Midnight.
As our Business Editor Peter Goodman puts it, the conditions underlying these numbers are "already familiar beyond the realm of professional economists and policymakers." This is what most Americans, Goodman writes, "know in their bones, not from government reports and the abstract musings of economists, but from the everyday fears that accompany glancing at their checkbooks and their latest credit card bills: There is no relief in sight. No one in a position to influence this depressing picture is expending real energy to improve it, and least of all inside the White House, where leadership is imperative."
Instead, the White House embraced the GOP message that the deficit is a bigger problem than jobs, kneecapping its ability to push for additional ways of stimulating the economy. And now the president and his team wanly claim there's not much they can do. But what they don't mention is how complicit they were in creating the conditions that have left them with not much to do. They gave away all the ammo and now plead helplessness because of... a lack of ammo.
The conventional wisdom is that "there is no appetite in Congress" for additional stimulus measures. But, in fact, members of Congress have an appetite for whatever their constituents have an appetite for. And for months, the American people have been hearing the president agree with the GOP that the deficit is the biggest problem in the country. Had the White House told the truth -- that the lack of jobs and anemic economic growth are far greater threats to the country -- people would be a lot more open to job creation proposals.
Instead the president, even on the heels of the latest round of depressing numbers, is oddly passive. "This economy took a big hit," he said Friday. "It is just like if you had a bad illness, if you got hit by a truck, it's going to take a while for you to mend."
Being hit by a truck is not a bad metaphor -- but he left something out. If you get hit by a truck, you are taken to a hospital for major interventions. When you are wheeled through the emergency room doors on a gurney, people react; they move purposefully and quickly; machines are brought out; desperate measures are taken. But that's not at all what happened with the economy. Instead, the economy got hit by a truck, was wheeled into the ER, and those in charge largely left the patient to heal on his own while they went into a back room to talk about the long-term building plan for the hospital. And, every now and again, they come out to tell the patient: "Remember, you were hit by a truck. It's going to take a while to mend."
You know what might help speed along the mending? Surgery.
At least now the specter of 2012 is forcing them to focus on the patient. Jared Bernstein, formerly the chief economic adviser to Vice President Biden, writes in The Huffington Post that the administration should pivot -- and pivot fast: "Based on new information," Bernstein suggests the White House tell the nation, "we are now pivoting from targeting deficits to targeting jobs!"
He recommends using one of the tools still at the administration's disposal: a payroll tax holiday. He favors the one drawn up by Alice Rivlin and Pete Domenici because "it's of significant magnitude, the first name of the commission that proposed it is 'bipartisan,' it cuts labor costs to employers and boosts paychecks of workers, who will spend the money, generating useful second round effects."
For his part, Paul Krugman suggests "W.P.A.-type programs putting the unemployed to work doing useful things like repairing roads," or a "serious program of mortgage modification."
The latter is especially important, since, as the New York Times noted recently, unemployment -- not subprime loans -- is now the main driver of foreclosures. Unfortunately, the administration's HAMP program was set up mainly to help those who took out subprime loans, and as such has not been particularly effective at addressing the ongoing housing disaster.
Here again, the administration is finally seeming to acknowledge the problem, but without acknowledging its role in allowing it to fester. As HuffPost's Zach Carter and Jennifer Bendery reported last week, the president, in a closed-door meeting with House Democrats, warned them that the housing crisis could take the economy even further down, leading one House Democrat to complain that Obama "said housing was the main thing dragging down the economy, with Geithner nodding solemnly like they'd done everything humanly possible for the last 27 months to fix the housing market."
For the administration to be credible in putting forth a jobs vision for the future it has to credibly acknowledge what's happened in the past. And its plan will have to go beyond simply blaming its predecessors. "It could have been worse!" is not much of a battle cry. To continue Obama's metaphor, it would be like the doctor telling you, "Hey, I know we haven't done much to help you, but at least we kept the really bad doctors from messing you up even more."
Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg recently released a report in which he warned the administration that, as HuffPost's Mark Blumenthal put it, "backward-looking campaign messages about who is to blame for the recession or whether the recovery efforts are succeeding are doomed to failure." What voters want, according to Greenberg, are real solutions that "ask the richest to pay their fair share of taxes," invest in "education and innovation" and "confront the power of money and the lobbyists." As he puts it: "There is a real economy out there that's not changing."
And yet there was soon-to-be-departing Austan Goolsbee, on ABC's This Week, claiming that the latest jobs numbers don't mean much because they're "highly variable." That may be, but the misery caused by this economy has been rock steady. To borrow a turn of phrase that's been in the news of late, no matter what variability there has been in the economic numbers, we can "say with certitude" that this economy stinks.
That's why it's not enough for the president to assure us "it's going to take a while to mend." The administration's inaction on jobs, and its utter surrender to the Republicans on the deficit, has created a vacuum -- one that allows Mitt Romney to go to New Hampshire and, without offering a plan of his own, claim that Obama has "failed America" and not be laughed out of the state.
Sure, it's a hollow claim. But if the position of The Person Who Is Supposed to Care About Jobs is left empty, the American people are going to find someone to fill it.