08/05/2011 12:17 pm ET | Updated Oct 05, 2011

Obama: The President Who Wouldn't Make the Louisiana Purchase

Of course, it's all about jobs. But why did the president ever think differently? Elizabeth Drew and others write that the White House believed that the message of the 2010 losses was that Americans believed government spending was out of hand. Thus, cutting government spending -- or at least balancing the budget at some future date -- dominated Obama's political thinking. So it wasn't what the president thought. Rather, it was all about what the people thought -- or thought they thought.

He sadly seems to be a follower, not a leader.

But one reason the surveys kept showing that government spending was a key concern was Obama himself. No one with sufficient influence in Washington was saying differently. No one was really talking with urgency about jobs, which was what really concerned Americans. Obama the Law Professor doesn't seem to want to be President Obama the Educator if it means going against public opinion, no matter how ephemeral that opinion may be. Stimulus -- not spending cuts -- could have created jobs. The wonderful thing about being president is the bully pulpit. But Obama doesn't use it to persuade Americans about much of anything.

So there was no discourse about government spending, only a monologue. There were occasional voices in the media crying otherwise. But for the most part, reporters, especially on TV, went along with the importance of balancing the budget sooner than later. Stimulus seemed just silly.

More recently, the supposedly far-seeing stock market couldn't see past its nose -- as usual. It could only focus on the debt ceiling talks, not the faltering economy. The moment the agreement was signed, the focus turned to the economy and stocks began their plunge -- compounded, of course, by events in Europe. It's as if everyone was complaining about how the rain was blinding the driver of the car, and finally when the windshield wipers were turned on, it became alarmingly obvious the car wasn't even on the road!

Keep in mind, America's slowing economy is also adding to the world financial crisis. If the dollar falls and American demand for imports dries up, where will growth come from across the globe?

Today's New York Times poll shows that by a two-to-one majority, Americans now believe that creating jobs should be a higher priority than reducing government spending. To be sure, however, more Americans said the spending cuts should have gone further -- by a large margin -- than thought they went too far. The myth lies deep in the American psyche. But it is now secondary.

So, at last, Obama has decided to talk about jobs. But what is he going to do now that he has hamstrung himself in on government spending?

Here's the key issue -- and it's genuine cause for alarm. The American job machine is badly broken. This is a much bigger issue than balancing the budget. The president should be telling the American people he understands that. But he seems, for all his talk, to be unaware of the pain in the nation. The outlook is now pretty bleak.

For the moment, the President seems to have won the public opinion battle with Congress in the debt ceiling battle. A large majority blame Congress, not him. That was his goal.

But it was classic short-termism. He came across as the mild-mannered centrist, but unemployment is not going down. Today's employment data were weak, if not dire. The bottom line is that many left the work force and the proportion of the work force now working is tied with its recent recessionary low.

Had he been something of a risk-taker, or even a bit of a visionary, Obama would have realized that he could lose some short-term popularity points, take a far harder stand on cuts, and demand some stimulus. He could have done these things with the idea that they would actually help the economy and perhaps give him a chance to win come November 2012.

He might even have pulled the Constitution card and said Congress had no right to set a debt ceiling in the first place, according to the 14th amendment. He said his lawyers told him that was a weak argument. But Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana Territories in 1803 knowing full well that it was probably unconstitutional for him to do so. There were also concerns back then about whether America could afford it. But that's what great presidents do in the big moments. They do what's right rather than abiding by minor niceties. Jefferson's is but one example.

Consider Obama the president who would not have made the Louisiana Purchase.

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick is the author of "Age of Greed."

A version of this post also appeared on

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