A national referendum on the economy went badly for incumbents on Tuesday, but there's a clear way for the President to be true to progressive values and regain the political momentum. It's time to "out-jobs" the conservatives.
I imagine my anxious, unemployed aunt looking up at the TV from the dishes she's washing to listen to a candidate projecting fear and frustration and saying, "yes, he gets it." On the campaign trail in a frightening economy, a candidate who echoes voters' negative emotions doesn't have to get to solutions. That's why if you were one of the 4 out of 10 Americans feeling more economic pain than two years ago, you voted Republican. It's also why President Obama will not prevail if we are still near 10 percent unemployment -- or worse -- in 2012. Luckily, the right thing to do for my aunt and people like her is also the best thing the President can do to ensure re-election in 2012: put Americans back to work.
"But we tried that," Democrats say. "The Republicans watered down the first stimulus and then blocked subsequent ones. And now the American people have sent a clear message that they don't want more government spending." Wrong. The American people want jobs, jobs, and more jobs. Yet the President's party has failed to make the simple case -- made effectively even by many conservatives, from Reagan's chief economist to a Wall Street CEO -- that spending is essential to creating jobs in the short-term. Astonishingly, Democrats in Congress are saying that it's time to cut spending. At 10 percent unemployment. They really are, even though pulling money out of the economy is the most certain way to damage it further and a further-damaged economy is the most certain way to damage their own prospects in 2012.
Don't get me wrong; I believe the election has a lesson for progressives. It's just that conservatives actually ran on two issues: jobs and deficits. The scary thing is that of these two, the President and his party may wind up earnestly adopting the one that is less politically powerful and downright economically dangerous: the deficit. It's a terrifying "only-in-Washington" scenario, but it doesn't have to come true. Instead, progressives could bring laser-like focus to jobs, putting forward bold plans like a national jobs bill to remind Americans what they get when the government spends. A jobs bill -- not a complex indirect stimulus bill, not something that the conservative message machine could turn into a "death panel" -- but jobs, plain and simple. Making things. In America. My out-of-work aunt could look up from clipping coupons to see her President offering a job rebuilding the country she loves; and watch in subsequent horror when conservatives in Congress try and snatch that job away.
And conservatives would most definitely snatch it away, screaming that a jobs bill will raise the deficit. But they'll have to admit that their only jobs plan -- more tax breaks for those they've begun calling "jobs creators" instead of "millionaires, billionaires, and multinational corporations" -- will raise the deficit by much, much more. That's the problem with conservatives' campaign promise: their narrow economic agenda means that they can't, cannot, deliver on both jobs and the deficit. They'll have to pick one, and for them it's not really a hard choice. By picking the deficit, they will prolong an economic recovery in order to campaign against Obama with it in 2012. Sticking to their anti-tax, anti-spending guns even though it cripples the economy is a gimme... it's a twofer.
Yet this shouldn't be a hard choice for the President and his party, either. The party of working people should find it easy to stand up for the 15 million middle-class Americans who lost their jobs through no fault of their own. The party of reasoned policy-making should find it easy to listen to economists who say that short-term spending is the only way to put Americans back to work and end this recession-deficit. Choosing to focus on job creation shouldn't be a difficult policy decision, and for the sake of my aunt, her husband, her children and the future of the middle class, I hope the President agrees.
Follow Heather McGhee on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Demos_Org