01/18/2013 12:56 pm ET Updated Mar 20, 2013

Time to Tackle America's Real Debt: Jobs

As President Obama prepares to take the oath of office, an elite consensus has emerged in Washington: The first term was about reducing unemployment; the second is about tackling the federal debt.

The Economist Magazine put it succinctly: "The crisis and recession are past," it declared. "Mr. Obama's priority now is dealing with the deficit they left behind."

For tens of millions of unemployed and underemployed Americans, there is a different reality, however: The Great Recession is alive and kicking. Rather than buying into the defunct economic ideology that underlies today's budget-cutting fervor, President Obama should focus on restoring workers' dignity and the nation's economy by restoring full employment.

For all the talk about the end of the Great Recession, there are still 12.2 million unemployed people in the United States. This does not include millions more who are working part-time but want and need full-time work. Worse still, this does not include millions of others who are too discouraged to continue looking for work.

Even these grim statistics mask the urgency of the situation. Empirical research over the past four years has shown that people who lose their jobs bear lasting damage to their earnings potential, their mental and physical health and the life opportunities of their children.

The costs are borne not only by individuals and families but cities, regions and the national economy. Years of persistently high unemployment have undermined the base of technical skills on which the nation relies to compete in manufacturing and other sectors globally; these years of high unemployment have reduced consumer demand, causing countless American firms to close.

All told, unemployment is still a national emergency in 2013.

Yet Washington politicians, spurred by an extreme conservative faction, are now pretending that it isn't.

The narrative that has taken hold in the nation's capital -- that America is broke and must sell off its assets and abandon key services for its most vulnerable people -- is based not on facts but fear.

Insider interest groups like the Peterson Institute, intent on reducing taxes for the wealthiest 1% by cutting vital programs including Social Security and Medicare, have been screaming since the early 1990s that investors will soon boycott U.S. bonds unless the nation drastically reduces its spending on the social safety net. These "bond vigilantes", they argue, will force our national borrowing costs -- the interest rates on our bonds -- through the roof, wreaking havoc on the economy.

Yet, tellingly, this never happens. For all the hysteria about budget deficits, there's a simple fact that's evident today: the cost of government borrowing is very low. The federal government can raise funds in the short term with practically no interest; it can borrow funds over ten years for less than two percent. These rates are not simply an economic advantage for the United States: They are a powerful statement that global markets still have great confidence in our national finances.

These low rates are also, crucially, a sign that we should assign urgency where urgency is due: dealing with our debilitating jobs crisis.

This is why I am proposing the "21st Century Full Employment Act" to invest in workers' skills and create public-interest work opportunities for all those who seek them. Such an approach would not only help the nation to overcome its educational challenges, environmental crises, and infrastructure deficits; it would also boost private sector economic growth by injecting desperately needed demand into the economy.

In seeking election in 2008, President Obama invoked a powerful line from Dr. Martin Luther King: "The fierce urgency of now." With regards to jobs, I pray that he continues to feel this urgency today.