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Frank A. Weil

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A Wake Up Call for Obama

Posted: 06/13/2012 5:10 pm

President Obama's gaffe last week that "the private sector is in good shape" is more indicative of life in 'the bubble' that surrounds any president, than of any unfamiliarity with the facts.

His "clarification," well expressed and reasoned as always, further revealed his state of mind.

He has evidently compartmentalized in his mind 'unemployment' separately from 'the private sector.' That is, partly, a valid distinction. A significant part of unemployment is in the public sector (where it continues to increase) but the greater balance is in the private sector, where it continues to shrink. The president clearly knows these facts well -- in particular that job growth has been improving at a greater rate in the private sector than the public sector. Strangely, that distinction may partly explain his gaffe.

However, the bubble also may have also contributed to the distortion of his thinking by input from "corporate" America -- the larger companies that penetrate his bubble regularly -- as distinguished from the rest of the private sector (the small businesses made up of dozens of construction trades, shopkeepers, clerical workers, wholesalers, etc.) The latter, clearly, are not doing as well as big corporations, even though altogether they are, in fact, America's greatest engine of job growth, which is the problem.

Corporate America can borrow money more easily than Small Business America. Corporate America can tough out rough times, while Small Business America bears the bulk of layoffs, bankruptcies and dissolutions. Corporate America fumes about regulations, but has the resources to navigate those headaches, while Small Business America often simply cannot cope with regulatory tangles and throws up its hands. The only place Small Business America has an edge over its Corporate counterpart is in numbers of voters, which is why the president's gaffe set off such a wave of comment.

It is true that the president is on the road, making visits to lots of samples of Small Business America, as well as the corporate world. But he rarely sits down with and talks in any length or depth with ordinary folks -- it is said there simply is not enough time in his days.

Several gaps in America today -- rich vs. poor; college vs. no college; people with access to the corridors of power vs. those without; open minded people vs. closed minded -- make it difficult to say things accurately, simply and clearly to a disparate population, which can lead to the kind of gaffe the president made last week.

Those gaps are not marked by red and blue uniforms. When a comment intended to be clear and correct to one constituency ricochets to another, political confusion and misunderstandings result to everyone's disadvantage.

If the president were not in the bubble, he surely would have been much less likely to have misspoken the way he did.

His opponent is not yet in a presidential kind of bubble, yet he also makes similar mistakes regularly. The difference is that his mistakes are more important because they are substantive, and arise from his orientation about how he believes an economy can be made to grow. Apparently he believes that simply eliminating regulations and lowering taxes will rev the jobs engine. We must remember what happened between 2000 and 2008 as we consider what Republicans propose to do in the next four years. We have seen that movie before and the ending is ugly.

Happily, there is a solution to bubble-inflicted distortions. Less reading of briefing books and listening only to highly-educated advisers would be a good start. The president should get out and spend time (even overnight) in people's homes and sit around their tables with food and beer and shoot the breeze and hear their stories -- not on the fly from town hall meetings, where most people pull their punches, which can further amplify and distort a president's perspective.

The wake-up call is to get out, get into the mud, and see and feel what it is like on the ground with the masses of America. While he is at it, he should tell them in plain language what he promises them for their future of optimism.

 
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