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Tone Deaf? The White House and Unemployment

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Recently Larry Summers was quoted as saying that unemployment levels in the US are "unacceptably high." He then went on to say that unemployment "will on all forecasts remain unacceptably high for a number of, for a number of years."

Wait. If Larry Summers -- and presumably the rest of the Administration -- really feels that way, why will these figures remain high? And for "years"? The Roosevelt Administration was able to cut unemployment in half -- from 25% to 12.5% -- in its first three years. If these figures are really "unacceptable," why is Larry Summers simply accepting this forecast -- and repeating it -- instead of telling us how the White House plans to change it?

Studies have shown that unemployment causes lasting emotional trauma and physical health problems, as well as the obvious financial hardship. It's nice to know Larry Summers deplores the situation. Now wouldn't it be great if he had a job where he could do something about it?

In other words: If you're not trying to fix a situation, you don't really find it "unacceptable."

If Mr. Summers believes that high unemployment is necessary in order to stabilize financial markets, he's free to explain that (or do the politically advisable thing and avoid the subject altogether.) But it makes no sense for a senior White House official to say these numbers are "unacceptable" -- and will be for some time -- and then say nothing about how the White House plans to handle it. It sounds like double-talk.

Is the White House tone deaf, or deaf to the suffering caused by unemployment? Until they announce a comprehensive plan for reducing unemployment, observers will be likely to conclude the answer is: both.

Regarding tone, both Mr. Summers and Tim Geithner have proven to be weak at carrying the Administration's message to the public, a fact which has not helped the President sell his economic message.

On another level, however, comments like Mr. Summers' seem to be a part of a very strange behavior pattern among leading Democrats. They have the tendency to portray themselves as passive actors -- victims, almost -- when speaking of circumstances that it's very much in their power to change. It's reminiscent of the way centrist Democrats talk about the public option in the Senate. They tell us with great regret that even the watered-down plan currently being proposed "won't pass" -- without saying that it won't pass because they don't intend to vote for it.

It's the "spit on my head and tell me it's raining" school of political communication, and it's not likely to win Democrats very many friends. It doesn't just appear evasive. It comes across as a kind of political Stockholm Syndrome.

It's looking as if the problem is more than just tone, however. As Bob Herbert and others have increasingly observed, the White House is taking victory laps over its rescue of Wall Street without addressing the continued suffering on Main Street. All this celebration in the midst of misery is beginning to take on a Marie Antoinette-ish feel. It's no longer enough for Democrats to shake their heads and make clucking sounds of regret at the bad news all around them. They need to tell us what they're doing about it.

Granted, the power of the Presidency has its limits. So does the power of the legislative branch. But Democrats are in charge of both branches now. They need to act like it -- and talk like it. Sustained unemployment is methodically dismantling the American middle class. If that's not the outcome Democrats are seeking, now would be a good time to take some action.

The time for talking is over.

RJ Eskow blogs when he can at:

A Night Light
The Sentinel Effect: Healthcare Blog

Eskow and Associates

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