WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH OBAMA?

Ted Rall

It's the Not Caring About the Economy, Stupid

As a pundit it's my job to explain why politicians do the things they do. Every now and then, however, a pol behaves so irrationally that I have to throw up my arms and ask:

What the hell is this guy thinking?

That's what Obama has me doing. For over two years. Why isn't he worried about unemployment?

Thomas Frank wondered in "What's the Matter with Kansas?" why Americans don't vote their (liberal) self-interest. What I can't figure out is why President Obama isn't following his self-interest.

Obama says he wants a second term. I believe him. Every president wants one.

Americans vote their pocketbooks. Not exclusively--they care about a candidate's values--but no president has ever been reelected with an unemployment rate over 7.2 percent. Right now it's 9.1 percent. Unless there's an expected reversal, it will still be way high by Election Day 2012.

Economists surveyed by USA Today predict that the jobless rate will be pretty much the same, 8.8 percent, at this time next year. Goldman Sachs is even more pessimistic. They think it will be 9.25 percent by the end of 2012--with a "meaningful downside risk" that it will be even worse.

Polls indicate that economic insecurity, specifically high unemployment, has been the biggest issue on voters' minds since Obama took over in 2009.

77 percent of Americans tell Gallup the economy is getting worse. That's up from 62 percent a month ago.

If Obama wants to get reelected he has to do something about jobs. Something BIG. Failing that--and that's an epic fail--he has to at least be perceived as trying to do something about jobs. But he hasn't done squat so far. And his job approval rating, now at an all-time low of 39 percent, reflects that.

I don't like admitting this, but I'm mystified. Why isn't Obama even trying to look like he cares about the one issue that could make or break his reelection chances?

"Government doesn't create jobs," tweeted GOP candidate Herman Cain recently. "Businesses create jobs. Government needs to get out the way." Obama and his fellow fake Democrats never challenge this right-wing framing.

Maybe they believe it. "The White House doesn't create jobs," Obama press secretary Jay Carney said August 5th.

But the meme is wrong. In the real world where flesh-and-blood American workers have been living since 2000, businesses haven't created any jobs. Instead, they've eliminated millions of them. And shipped millions more overseas.

Those job-killing trends--eliminating workers, increased automation and globalization--won't change soon. "Workers are getting more expensive while equipment is getting cheaper, and the combination is encouraging companies to spend on machines rather than people," Catherine Rampell recently reported for The New York Times.

There's also a death-spiral effect. Elena Semuels of The Los Angeles Times sums it up: "Economists say the nation is stuck in a Catch-22 scenario: The economy won't improve until businesses hire, but many won't hire without consumer demand, which is weak because of the current state of the job market and concerns about the future."

"Everyone says, 'How can we have a recovery without jobs?' [But] until I start seeing my competitors add jobs, I'm not going to do it," Loren Carlson of the CEO Roundtable tells MSNBC.

Recovery won't come from business. The scope of the post-2008 meltdown is too vast.

On the other hand, government can and does create jobs. Indirectly, it creates the veneer of law and order that permits commerce. Government can also employ people directly.

FDR orchestrated the direct hiring of 9 million Americans as government employees for the WPA and other programs. The federal government even hired writers and artists. Adjusted for population growth, that's the same as 22 million people today. Obama could have done something like that in early 2009.

Too late now, of course. Obama's inaction on the economy prompted a Republican sweep in the 2010 midterms. They won't go along.

Keynes 101: the time for austerity is during a boom, when you can afford to save up for a rainy day. Governments are supposed to spend their way out of a recession or depression. The GOP-conceived debt ceiling deal is 200-proof insanity.

"An anti-Keynesian, budget-balancing immediacy imparts a constrictive noose around whatever demand remains alive and kicking," wrote Bill Gross of the bond-trading firm Pimco in The Washington Post. "Washington hassles over debt ceilings instead of job creation in the mistaken belief that a balanced budget will produce a balanced economy. It will not."

Rather than criticize this austerity lunacy, Obama is still going along. "Mr. Obama's senior adviser, David Plouffe, and his chief of staff, William M. Daley, want him to maintain a pragmatic strategy of appealing to independent voters by advocating ideas that can pass Congress, even if they may not have much economic impact," reports the New York Times.

"We're at a loss to figure out a way to articulate the argument in a way that doesn't get us pegged as tax-and-spenders," admits a Democratic Congressional advisor. For God's sake, grow a pair! Make your case to the public.

Anything that doesn't have "much economic impact" isn't going to have much electoral impact either. And neither are token gestures like a three-day bus tour, revamping the patent process, or another overhyped speech. (Scheduled for September. Because, why rush?)

As you read this Obama is off to Martha's Vineyard, hanging out with millionaires.

Really--what's going on? Can Obama really be that stupid? Can anyone?

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