When President Barack Obama takes the podium Wednesday night on what is billed as his latest pivot back to the economy, the only honest thing he can tell us is the one thing he is surely reluctant to admit: He is largely powerless. If you want a more vibrant economy and millions more jobs, go ask someone else to deliver.
Specifically, go and agitate for something new from the Republicans in the House of Representatives, who have resumed the only play in their playbook: Obstruct, threaten the chaos of a government shutdown and hack away at the budget while hoping that an uninformed electorate will punish the other party for the ensuing economic damage.
Go and press the private sector to stop sitting on monumental piles of cash -- Apple alone has $147 billion -- and instead start investing in the American economy, hiring people in the process.
There was a time when Obama could have acted unilaterally, sidestepping the GOP to help foster job creation. Had his initial foreclosure prevention efforts actually relieved underwater borrowers of untenable burdens, instead of catering to the balance-sheet concerns of mortgage companies, the result would have been healthier consumer spending that in turn would have yielded fresh paychecks. But that day is over. The president's housing rescue efforts are widely acknowledged as a failure and now the money -- initially included in the government's bailout fund for banks -- is gone.
One can argue, as I have done here previously, that Obama has talked too little about the unemployment crisis eating away at American life, except as a prop on the campaign stump. He and his team were too quick cheerlead ambiguous signs of growth -- recall the recovery summer of 2010 -- while avoiding a hard reckoning with reality for fear of bumming out potential voters. Fair hits all, and yet the simple fact of Republican influence over the budget is inescapable.
Forget the old debate about whether Obama's $787 billion stimulus spending package, unleashed in early 2009, was big enough or leaned too heavily on tax cuts. That's all moot now. We've got what we've got: a large amount of spending still coursing through the federal bureaucracy catalyzing valuable experiments in renewable energy, life sciences and other potential engines for hiring in years to come. We are unquestionably better off than we would have been absent that spending, yet we are unquestionably mired in a weak economy that condemns formerly middle-class families to lives along the poverty line. And there's no more money where that came from.
The only action in Washington now is over whether the government will in fact spend less money, an outcome that would surely deepen and extend our economic troubles.
The $3 billion Obama is seeking for renewable-energy and energy-efficiency programs for the budget year that starts in October got whittled down to $826 million by House Republicans, who prefer energy-inefficient programs via subsidies for fossil-fuel industries.
The House GOP has also targeted early childhood education grants for poor children while seeking to slash food stamps. At the center of this slash-and-burn campaign is Obamacare, whose expansion of health insurance to low-income people would facilitate greater spending and hiring. The GOP is threatening to shut down the government unless funds for Obamacare are eliminated.
This means the best Obama can do as he resumes talking about our economic plight is to somehow put off further damage.
Same as it ever was, American economic fortunes are stuck in the hands of a party that is willing to hurt the national interest for its narrow electoral gains. (And perhaps wannabe Vice President Paul Ryan has failed to notice that this tactic has yet to produce the intended ballot-box results.)
The one fresh thing Obama might urge on Wednesday is for companies in the private sector to do more to help deliver a healthier recovery, rather than maximize their own short-term returns. Major companies say they are reluctant to hire because they feel no confidence in future economic expansion. Who wants to add to their payroll when future sales growth looks like a dubious proposition?
Fair enough, but what would happen if the companies with the biggest piles of cash -- Microsoft has $77 billion -- pledged to put some of that money to use here in the United States, sinking it into new ventures? Surely, that would prompt hiring in other areas of the economy, because activity in one place generates demand for almost anything you can think of -- office furniture made in western Michigan; logistics hubs run in Memphis; legal, catering, construction and landscaping services in virtually every town.
President Obama has tried to reinvigorate the economy, though we can argue about the adequacy of that effort. Had all of his proposals come to pass in recent years, we would be in a better place. But recognizing this does little for the future. We are still having the same tired conversation about why too few people are working, and why many of those with jobs earn too little to support their families. Until the GOP is forced to change, and until business commits to investing in job-creating pursuits rather than engaging in financial management, speeches like the one Obama is set to give Wednesday night are little more than photo-ops.