Soon It'll Again Be the Voters' Turn to 'Bite Back'

09/07/2010 09:40 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In November 2008 there were 23.1 million unemployed Americans in all four categories of unemployment: the "officially" counted and millions more intentionally uncounted. These beleaguered workers substantially influenced the election outcomes for the presidency and in the House and Senate. In states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Iowa -- and frankly in 45 others -- unemployed workers en masse said "enough is enough" when it comes to long-term unemployment, to stagnant wages for 90 percent of workers for the past twenty years, and to the greatest degree of income inequality since 1928. Of course, many of their employed friends and neighbors, just as concerned about the dismal state of the economy, voted the same way.

Well as we sadly just learned, there are now 6.7 million more real unemployed Americans than there were in November 2008 -- and all 29.8 million unemployed workers are even angrier and more disillusioned than was the case in 2008.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics announced last Friday that "in August U.S. employers decreased (non-farm) payrolls by 54,000 jobs, with only 67,000 private-sector jobs added in the month, and the unemployment rate moved up to 9.6 percent from 9.5 percent." Unfortunately, this announcement was so misleading as to be cruel. In fact, the number of real unemployed workers in all four categories of unemployment increased by a massive 532,000 workers, as manufacturers shed 27,000 jobs, 114,000 Census workers lost their temporary jobs, state governments cut a further 14,000 jobs, and hundreds of thousands more frustrated workers gave up their searches and "left the workforce." So, to be clear, the real unemployment rate, which is the only rate that matters, is 18.6 percent -- it's not 9.6 percent.

No candidate promised anyone a job during the 2008 campaign, just as Franklin Roosevelt didn't promise anyone a job in the 1932 campaign. But what unemployed workers were promised in '08 (and in '32) was that beginning Day One every energy of the new administration would be focused on creating jobs until the recession/depression was over in terms of real employment.

I want to elaborate a bit on the Roosevelts, specifically on Eleanor, who quickly became the legs of her crippled husband. As I wrote back in March for HuffPost, after the Supreme Court had thrown the labor side of the economic recovery back into complete disarray when it struck down the National Industrial Recovery Act or NIRA, Mrs. Roosevelt, a consistent advocate for workers and workers' rights, emboldened the entire nation by touring a coal mine. According to the New York Times, Mrs. Roosevelt "smiling with eagerness as she reached the mine shaft declined the new pair of overalls provided for her, donned a grey coat and a miner's hard hat, and headed two miles into the mine." For over an hour and a half she discussed wages and working conditions, safety precautions and mining methods with the four hundred miners, black with coal dust.

I titled that piece "Eleanor Roosevelt Tours Coal Mine - BHO [i.e., Barack Obama] Still Needs To." Now, six months later, I would have to add to the second half of the title: "and so does anyone else who persists in ignoring this jobless recovery in the name of politics."

On Labor Day, the Machinists Union's community service project, "Ur Union of Unemployed (UCubed)", launched an Internet initiative called Bite Back which has the simply stated objective of persuading the jobless to vote on November 2 against any candidate who won't step up for the unemployed. UCubed's partners include the whole of the AFL-CIO, plus, among others, the Communication Workers (CWA), the Painters (IUPAT), State, County and Municipal workers (AFSCME), UNITEHERE and the grassroots group Working America.

And from the look of things, Democrats will need every jobless voter they can find to prevent the loss of their majorities in the House and Senate. But doing so is suddenly even more of a challenge because the White House just left the impression that job creation and balanced economic recovery are only now the number one priority that workers were given to believe they would be immediately following the Inauguration.

Messaging in politics means everything, and it wasn't helpful for President Obama to include in his important August 31 address on Iraq his views on revitalizing the domestic economy in a way that made them come across as an afterthought. In the 381 words he devoted to the most complex set of domestic issues to confront the nation since the Great Depression, he noted -- rightly -- that "the bedrock of the nation's prosperity must be a growing middle class." But he then left many us beyond dismayed when he went on to say: "And so at this moment, as we wind down the war in Iraq, we must tackle those challenges at home with as much energy, and grit, and sense of common purpose as our men and women in uniform who have served abroad."

The 30 million Americans effectively out of work today were never told that they had to wait for the administration's attention until we 'wound down the war in Iraq'. It's disingenuous, eighteen months into this administration and nine months after Larry Summers said last December 13 that "everyone now agrees the Recession is over", to now pretend that Summers didn't say what he said. We knew as long ago as 2006 that a jobs-based economic disaster was on the horizon, and all through the '08 campaign thoughtful responses that would create jobs were advanced and considered. Yet only now -- in September 2010 -- is this the "moment, as we wind down the war in Iraq, [when] we must tackle challenges at home."

The issues of widespread unfairness in the economy and almost unprecedented real unemployment deserve many more than the meager 381 words dropped in at the end of a major national security address. And the rising levels of profound dislocation and economic tragedy that these two issues are visiting upon America today are entitled to every job-creation solution in the book, not the incomplete list that the president outlined when he said:

"To strengthen our middle class, we must give all our children the education they deserve, and all our workers the skills that they need to compete in a global economy. We must jump-start industries that create jobs, and end our dependence on foreign oil. We must unleash the innovation that allows new products to roll off our assembly lines, and nurture the ideas that spring from our entrepreneurs."

Where, among a missing long list, did he talk about trade reform; about the absolute thumping that American workers get every day from China's illegal trade subsidies, currency manipulation, and environmental degradation; and about a U.S. manufacturing sector that is now only half the size it must be? Long-term education and training reforms, while vital, will not solve the nation's jobs and trade crises in my lifetime, and I say this as the former Chairman of Teach for America, where I saw firsthand the imperative for better education and training.

We did not lose millions of jobs and eviscerate our manufacturing sector because of our failings in education and training, as acute as they are. We have suffered because of some really bad policies dating back to 1981, and now we need some really good policies -- every trick in the book, as I said -- to stop the suffering.

But in these first days of September 2010, first things first, and the next thing coming up is the national election on November 2.

The Bite Back campaign, whose theme music is the pounding score from the movie Jaws, highlights the plight of America's jobless and seeks to refocus their rage. It believes, with lots of supporting evidence, that the jobless will again be the swing voters. Many are the so-called "surge voters" -- African Americans, Latinos, blue collar males with high school diplomas, and college students -- who helped propel Barack Obama to the White House in 2008, but who in the intervening two years have faced much higher unemployment rates than other Americans.

If recent surveys are to be believed, only modest distinctions exist among the views of the 15 million "officially" unemployed workers, the 15 million uncounted unemployed workers, and the 105 million workers, excluding only the elite top ten percent, who live every day with stagnant wages and eroding benefits. For all of them, "creating new jobs is likely to affect their votes for Congress."

Both incumbent parties are right now held in the exact same sad regard -- a one-third approval rating for each. However, for all voters the jury is still clearly out on whether or not they believe Republican challengers can "create new jobs," the proof of which is that by a very large 2-1 margin, even Republican voters would rather vote for someone new than for a current Republican member of Congress.

In these two latter poll results lie the opportunities for Democrats, incumbents and challengers alike. The contrast drawn on November 2 will largely be between stalled but well intentioned economic stimulus from the Democrats, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the realities that Republicans in Congress voted almost en masse against stimulus, they repeatedly voted as a block against extending unemployment benefits, and their leadership openly consider the jobless to be "lazy," "drug users" and "hobos."

Democratic candidates need to convince voters, like Franklin Roosevelt did in 1932, that they're the ones who understand that the domestic economy is the nation's highest priority, that they have more specific proposals in mind to quickly close the jobs gap and bring the nation back at full employment, and that they won't rest until their proposals are enacted. Of course, this also means pointing out the inanity of believing that any Republican actually cares a whit about the unemployed and the stagnant wages of nearly every other worker.

And if this means having to acknowledge that Mr. Obama should not have waited until his August 31, 2010 speech on Iraq to finally give reemployment its proper priority, then say it. All that matters now is convincing voters that despite some missteps, only Democrats can right the employment ship.

Leo Hindery, Jr. is Chairman of the US Economy/Smart Globalization Initiative at the New America Foundation and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Currently an investor in media companies, he is the former CEO of Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI), Liberty Media and their successor AT&T Broadband. He also serves on the Board of the Huffington Post Investigative Fund.