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It's the Unemployment, Stupid

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If the unemployment numbers keep rising into 2010, the Republicans are primed to pick up dozens of seats in the House, crippling the Obama administration's capacity to recoup in the second half of the president's first term. Obama would lose his very tenuous working majority and would confront a situation very much like the one Bill Clinton faced after the Republican gains of 1994, when he worked even more closely with Republicans in order to save his own skin. If you liked triangulation Clinton-style, wait for Rahm Emanuel's version of it.

The most recent employment numbers were bad enough on their face -- 263,000 job losses in September, and a measured increase in payroll employment to 9.8 percent. But the real numbers are much worse. The nominal rate conceals the fact that the labor force is 615,000 workers smaller than it was a year ago, even though the working age population continues to grow. People who can't find jobs and quit looking are no longer counted as part of the labor force. If normal labor force growth had continued, the unemployment rate would be close to 12 percent. See the analysis of the numbers by the good people at the >Economic Policy Institute and the estimable Dean Baker. The administration's people know this reality, and they are aware of the political risks. So what are they doing? Precious little.

I had a conversation with a senior administration economic official last week and I asked him to suspend disbelief and consider a large increase in public spending to create more jobs. What would he spend the money on? We discussed the pro's and con's of emergency fiscal aid to the states versus a tax credit for job creation in the private sector, subsidized job-sharing, and direct public works employment. But it was clear that the administration considers a Stimulus II a non-starter. The view is shared by Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, who testified last week that there was not much we could do about rising unemployment except wait it out.

This is economically deplorable and politically self-defeating. When the administration considered its $787 billion stimulus bill last winter, its projection was that unemployment would peak at 8.9 percent. It's clear that joblessness is going to be a lot worse, and nobody has a convincing story about where the new jobs are going to come from once economic growth turns positive. Time magazine recently ran a cover story suggesting that we might just have to get used to a new reality of persistently high joblessness, and compensate with other policies such as more heroic job training (but for non-existent jobs?)

But that view is malarkey. Economists were making the same argument in 1938 and 1939. The economy, supposedly, had reached a level of maturity and technological sophistication that there just weren't enough jobs. Unemployment was just stuck around 15 percent. Then along came World War II. The federal deficit rose to 29 percent of GDP (this year it will be about 11 percent) and unemployment disappeared.

The president should be making the case for increased deficit spending on job-creation in 2010 and 2011, followed by a program of deficit reduction financed by progressive taxation. Public opinion on these issues is not static, and in fact a recent poll done by Hart Research Associates for EPI shows that the public cares a lot more about joblessness than it does about the deficit. 53 percent of respondents said lack of jobs was the most important issue, but only 27 percent said the deficit was. Fully 83 percent sand that unemployment was a big problem, and just two percent said it was not a problem. Presidential leadership could make a huge difference in translating these attitudes into action.

The Blue Dog Democrats in Congress are opposed to larger deficits, but many of them would support a ten-year program of more public outlay now coupled with deficit reduction after recovery comes. Unfortunately, a lot of Washington's centrist savants are skipping directly to the deficit reduction, overlooking the fact that we are still a long way from recovery. As EPI was holding a conference releasing the results of its research, the more moderate Center for American Progress (CAP) was holding a big event on alarm about the national debt. CAP President John Podesta, former director of the Obama transition team, is an enthusiast of value-added taxes as deficit-reduction medicine.

My own view is that VAT's are highly regressive taxes on consumption. I could go along with them if they were part of a deal that included progressive taxes such as a tax on financial transactions and if some of the money went to expanding public services rather than just reducing deficits. But this is only half of the conversation, and the less urgent half. Unless we get a bigger recovery going, and get unemployment down well before the 2010 mid-term elections, all this center-left policy wonkery will be beside the point because the Republicans will be running the country.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect, a senior fellow at Demos, and author of Obama's Challenge.