WASHINGTON — Five months into his improvisational second term, a sluggish economy and severe jobless rate seem to have vanished from President Obama’s agenda.
That is, if he had a substantive second term agenda to begin with. He certainly didn’t focus on the economy in his re-election bid.
He didn’t run on any bold new initiatives to create millions of new jobs and get the economy growing at a stronger, faster pace. The economy was on autopilot.
The Washington Post took the White House and Capitol Hill to task on Tuesday, complaining, “Washington has all but abandoned efforts to help the economy recover faster. …
“There are no serious negotiations underway between the White House and congressional leaders on legislation to spur growth and no bipartisan ‘gangs’ of senators are huddling to craft a compromise job-creation package,” the Post said.
You don’t hear anyone in the Obama administration addressing this matter, even though the economic growth rate remains critically anemic by historical standards. More than 11.5 million Americans are still searching for a job. Some 4 million people have been jobless for six months or more. A nationwide Washington Post-ABC News poll this month found that two-thirds of Americans surveyed said jobs were hard to find where they lived.
However, Obama continues to ignore the economy. He won re-election when it was barely growing at 0.4 percent in November, so he figures it can’t hurt him now. Instead, he’s been zigging and zagging, making up an agenda of sorts as he goes along.
One day, the White House remembers that the Senate is working on an immigration bill and puts out a statement urging its passage — though the West Wing has had nothing to do with designing the bill’s key provisions or moving the process along.
Earlier this month, it dawned on Obama’s advisers that he hadn’t said much about the economy for quite a while. So he made a photo-op, fly-by visit to Texas to talk about jobs, but uttered no new ideas about how to create more of them.
Obama’s handlers chose a politically convenient state to visit. The jobless rate in the Republican-run Lone Star state — where taxes are low and regulations tame — is a low 6.4 percent. GOP Gov. Rick Perry told the president that if he wants to see how jobs are created, “he came to the right state.”
Why didn’t Obama visit his Democratic-run home state of Illinois, where the unemployment rate is 9.3 percent? In his hometown of Chicago, it’s 10 percent. Why not drop in on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s state of Nevada, where the jobless rate is 9.6 percent?
The Gallup Poll recently asked Americans which issues should the government be making its top priorities. The two top concerns were “creating more jobs” and “helping the economy grow.”
The issues that Obama has focused in the past several months — gun control and immigration reform — were ninth and 10th, respectively, in Gallup’s list.
Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines improvise as “to make, invent or arrange offhand,” or to “fabricate out of what is conveniently on hand.” That’s what Obama has been doing this year.
He’s been responding ad hoc to events or cherry-picking issues that appeal politically to his base, but not leading or shaping them. This isn’t a dynamic agenda for change, and he makes no pretense he has transformational ambitions to enact one.
“My intentions over the next three and a half years are to govern,” Obama told a Democratic Party fundraiser in New York City last week. But to what end? For what purpose? Where are his big ideas?
Alas, he has none. He certainly learned nothing about job creation in Texas. But he wants his party’s base to know that, if he’s not willing to grapple with the large economic issues that still endanger our country’s future, he’s very focused on the next election in 2014 when a number of vulnerable Democratic seats are up for grabs.
“If there are folks who are more interested in winning elections than they are thinking about the next generation, then I want to make sure there are consequences to that,” the president said.
One of his big, time-consuming activities on this year’s schedule is a long roadshow of political fundraisers and high-level planning for next year’s midterm House and Senate elections.
At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, however, the focus has clearly been on the economy, though it gets little attention in the Washington news media. The Republican House has passed more than a half-dozen bills in the past year aimed at strengthening job growth, only to see them die in the Democratic Senate.
The chairmen of the tax-writing panels in Congress — Max Baucus, who runs the Senate Finance Committee, and Dave Camp, who heads the House Ways and Means Committee — are working together on a major overhaul of the tax code. Insiders tell me it will cleanse hundreds of billions of dollars in special-interest loopholes and other tax preferences, while lowering the tax rates.
Where is Obama in this historic legislative movement? AWOL. He rarely talks about it. He isn’t leading on it. And he isn’t crazy about across-the-board reductions in the tax rates to boost the economy.
When Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke went before the Joint Economic Committee on Wednesday, he made it clear once again that there was only so much the Fed could do to improve the economy. This was also a job for Congress and for fiscal policy changes dealing with taxes and spending.
Last month, the anemic Obama economy produced just 165,000 jobs out of a workforce of 160 million — far from the estimated 365,000 jobs a month needed to reduce the unemployment rate to 6 percent in the next three years.
Four years into the Reagan economic recovery, the economy was expanding at a 5.2 percent annual rate and jobs were plentiful again. In Obama’s recovery, economic growth is expected to be a meek 1 percent to 2 percent in the second quarter.
And for most of the country, a well-paying, full-time job is still hard to find.