Barack Obama is focusing on the wrong deficit. At the 1936 Democratic national convention Franklin Roosevelt, before going on to landslide re-election, said, "We are poor indeed if this Nation cannot afford to lift from every recess of American life the dread fear of the unemployed that they are not needed in the world. We cannot afford to accumulate a deficit in the books of human fortitude."
During his first two years as president, many of us wanted to give Obama the benefit of the doubt -- just a little more time perhaps -- before we would again see the man we voted for. We had such high hopes for his making real changes in Washington, but now there's little hope left, even among ardent supporters.
Paul Krugman of the New York Times largely blames Obama for making the economic crisis about the budget deficit instead of the real problem -- unemployment:
Has market turmoil left you feeling afraid? Well, it should. ... But there's another emotion you should feel: anger. For what we're seeing now is what happens when influential people exploit a crisis rather than try to solve it. For more than a year and a half -- ever since President Obama chose to make deficits, not jobs, the central focus of the 2010 State of the Union address -- we've had a public conversation that has been dominated by budget concerns, while almost ignoring unemployment.
Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr., generally an Obama supporter, writes:
Not since his own supporters were losing faith in his presidential campaign in the summer of 2007 has Obama confronted so many bad reviews and such widespread frustration and angry criticism from his own side. Now the censure is reinforced by terrible tidings from the outside in the form of wildly swinging stock markets, persistent unemployment and divisions in the nation's capital so deep that they make the period around President Bill Clinton's impeachment look like an era of good feelings.
Even Warren Buffett is among those who have had enough, writing in a New York Times guest op-ed entitled "Stop Coddling the Super-Rich":
While the poor and middle class fight for us in Afghanistan, and while most Americans struggle to make ends meet, we mega-rich continue to get our extraordinary tax breaks. My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress. It's time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice.
The president is not forcefully challenging Congress on this issue. In between speeches to raise money from wealthy donors, the president seems to worry about being too harsh on the business and financial sectors. Although changing tax policy is difficult, Mr. Obama might at least make it known that he shares Warren Buffett's attitude towards his fellow big players in the markets.
It isn't just the president's policies that disappoint so many of us. It is his manifest attitude -- the way he approaches the range of problems confronting Americans. It may be simplistic to note that the help given to big business and the banks is in striking contrast to the piddling efforts to help the unemployed, the partially employed, and others suffering from the Great Recession. But I suspect that Americans instinctively -- and rightfully -- see it that way.
Rather than the president presenting the solution, he has left it to a little-known congresswoman from Chicago, Jan Schakowsky, to present a specific jobs program that should have been rolled out of the White House in Obama's first year in office.
The president talks about the need to focus on jobs but won't introduce legislative proposals that the Republican-dominated House of Representatives might defeat. Perhaps his advisers are too young to remember how Harry Truman ran his successful election campaign in 1948, banging away at the Republicans in Congress, listing all the proposals they had turned down.
Several columnists have noted that President Obama is poorly advised. I agree. That is a basic problem, but it sidesteps the point. Voters will, and must, look to their leader, the man they elected -- the man they are now disappointed in.
In spite of brilliant speeches, the president has not connected with the American people, as last November's election clearly demonstrated. His attitude comes across in a most unfortunate way. Columnist Robert Reich described Obama's response to the worsening job situation, then wrote, "To call this inadequate would be a gross understatement." Mr. Obama seems genuinely unable to empathize with our citizens who are hurting, whether they are unemployed or just suffering, as our middle class Americans are, from the Great Recession. (And now we face a double dip!)
Reich suggests the president should present a bold plan, summon lawmakers back to Washington to pass it, and, if they don't, vow to fight for it right up through Election Day. The much-heralded presidential speech tackling the unemployment problem next month probably will be strong on words. But will it present a specific jobs program (like the WPA, the PWA, and the CCC of the New Deal)? Will he be willing to increase the nation's debt, as he must if he wants to reduce the burden on many Americans?
We can afford to do this. In spite of our large debt, due primarily to military expenditures, we are not a poor country, not by any measure. It is high time Barack Obama rose to his own expectations, those expressed in his inaugural address: "We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin the work of remaking America."
Mr. President, are you willing now to explain to the American people what the real deficit problem is?