09/06/2011 09:52 am ET | Updated Nov 06, 2011

Jobs Debate... Months Too Late

It's about time.

Throughout the long health care debate and the nerve-wracking confrontation over the debt ceiling, the voters' concern has never wavered. It was always focused on one issue -- jobs. Now, finally, Washington is beginning to pay attention.

Politicians should have learned an important rule of politics by now: if the economy is bad, nothing else matters. The first President Bush discovered that in 1992, when his dramatic victory in the Gulf war failed to save him. President Obama is discovering that now, as his triumph in eliminating Osama bin Laden is losing impact.

The corollary to the rule is also true: if the economy is good, much is forgiven. President Clinton discovered that when he faced impeachment in 1998. The economy was booming, so the voters punished Republicans for trying to bring down a president who was doing a good job.

The problem is, Washington is turning its attention to jobs at a time when confidence in government has collapsed. The Pew Research Center found in its poll last month that public trust in "the government in Washington" was only 19%, very close to its all-time low of 17% in 1994 and 2008.

Pollster Bill McInturff cites this summer's debt ceiling negotiation as a deeply alarming event that generated a wave of public anger at government and pessimism over the economy. Last month's Pew poll shows exactly that. Public confidence in President Obama: down. His job rating is 43%. Public confidence in the Republican Party: even lower. Just 34% of Americans hold a favorable opinion of the GOP, down nine points since early this year. Public confidence in Congress: lower still. An embarrassing 25%. Even the tea party has lost public support. Unfavorable opinion of the Tea Party has increased from 25% in February 2010 to 43% in August 2011.

President Obama tried to look like a hero by protecting the country's full faith and credit and not allowing it to go into default. But it didn't quite come across that way. For one thing, Standard & Poor's went ahead and lowered the country's credit rating anyway. For another thing, the American public always opposed raising the debt ceiling. In the end, the president and Congress acted in defiance of public opinion. That is never without consequence in a democratic country with a populist political culture.

Republicans threatened to drive the country into default, but President Obama refused to call their bluff. It was too big a gamble. As a result, Obama did not look strong the way President Clinton did at the end of 1995. When the Republican Congress threatened to shut down the federal government, Clinton did call their bluff. After that showdown, Clinton's political recovery carried him through to re-election the following year.

This year, Republicans in Congress came across as reckless and irresponsible. President Obama came across as someone who could be pushed around. That image was re-enforced this month by the showdown over the date of the president's jobs speech. It was a totally unnecessary conflict, provoked by the White House. Once again the president was forced to back down. The Pew poll reveals that, for the first time, most Americans no longer feel President Obama is "a strong leader" and "able to get things done."

Weakness invites aggression. That's a rule in politics as well as international relations. If the president appears weak and ineffectual, his enemies will mount acts of aggression against him. And there are plenty of showdowns yet to come this year.

Some Republicans in Congress are already pushing back at the Obama administration's request for disaster relief after Hurricane Irene. The Federal Aviation Administration is about to run out of money and may have to cease some operations this month. Federal funds for highway construction are nearly depleted.

Congress must approve a new federal budget by October or risk a government shutdown. In November, the twelve-member "super committee" is due to deliver its recommendations for eliminating $1.5 trillion from federal deficits over the next ten years. If a majority endorses a plan, Congress will be forced to act.

And lo and behold, the U.S. Postal Service -- the second oldest agency of the federal government, dating from 1775 when Benjamin Franklin was appointed postmaster general -- may have to shut down this winter unless Congress takes emergency action to avert default.

Congress must also act on any new stimulus spending and tax cuts President Obama calls for in his jobs speech on Thursday.

The country is in a perilous situation. The economic situation is dire. Congress is discredited. Republicans are in disrepute. And the president is in a dangerously weakened position. No one has the political advantage in this situation. As pollster McInturff concludes, "This type of deep voter anger, unease and economic pessimism leads to unstable and unpredictable political outcomes." Just in time for the 2012 campaign.

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