With 290,000 new jobs created last month, the economic recovery can no longer be described as jobless. Yet more than 15 million Americans still don't have jobs. How do you send a "we care" message under these circumstances? From Capitol Hill to the White House, nobody in either party is doing very well at it.
President Obama's visit to a Buffalo factory this week, one of his occasional high-visibility dips into the jobs issue, is striking because jobs are so seldom front and center in the national discussion these days. The word "jobs" hasn't appeared in the title of a weekly presidential address since last Dec. 5. Out of a dozen new laws in "featured legislation" on the White House homepage, there's only one jobs bill (two if you count a "Cash for Clunkers" extension from last August). Events and blogposts by Vice President Joe Biden or White House staff do not count. Only the president can stamp an issue "priority," and that hasn't happened since he signed the stimulus bill 15 months ago.
On the "economic recovery" page of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer's Web site, the most recent statement Wednesday was from last October (until I pointed that out and it was hastily updated). House Republicans, meanwhile, sent out an e-mail headlined "Republican Economic Recovery Working Group to Announce New Initiative." That sounded like it might be about jobs, but it turned out to be a project called "YouCut." And You'reRight if you surmised that it involves public voting on lists of proposed federal spending cuts.
The GOP mantra of "where are the jobs?" was undermined last week when the Labor Department reported the April job creation number -- the highest in four years. But the report wasn't unadulterated good news for Democrats. People feeling better about their prospects flooded back into the job market, and that boosted unemployment from 9.7 percent in March to 9.9 percent in April.
Stan Greenberg, the Democratic pollster, said his party is talking about the economy all wrong. In particular he cited party chairman Tim Kaine's plan to sell Democrats as "the party of results" whose policies are working, and Republicans as obstructionists trying to block those policies. "It's no moment for a victory lap and no moment for self-congratulations by politicians," he told me. "People are angry and frustrated. They perceive Democrats have not been attentive on the economy. I'm sure they have been, but not in ways that people would see."
Greenberg's research found that the best message for Democrats is a tight, future-oriented focus on the middle class. In his view, they should say they supported an economic plan that "continues to cut taxes for the middle class" and helps small businesses, and now "we should tax CEO bonuses and Wall Street banks to pay back the taxpayers. Let's finish the job for the middle class."
A 51 percent majority said they would be more likely to vote for a Democrat who made the middle-class argument. Only about four in 10 were similarly persuaded after hearing other Democratic approaches, such as "the economy is growing again and we need time to finish the job." Even fewer — 36 percent — were swayed by the GOP argument, which Greenberg presented this way: "Democrats promised more government spending would keep unemployment at 8 percent, but it jumped to 10 percent. They created government jobs but not in businesses. They produced trillions of debt — as they bailed out banks and auto companies and created special deals for their union friends. Their answer to every problem is more spending and more debt, a path to socialism that American taxpayers can't afford."
Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster, said his party should hold Obama to his economic advisers' forecast early last year that the $787 billion stimulus bill would keep unemployment below 8 percent. "The president is the one who set the guidepost as to how to judge his policies," McInturff told me. His preferred GOP message: "That spending didn't do what it was supposed to do. It hasn't been effective. We've had it with Washington spending, and Obama doesn't have a policy in place to create jobs."
In 1982, McInturff said, "It was very hard for Ronald Reagan in the midst of 10 percent unemployment to ask for more time to finish the job" and Republicans lost 26 House seats. He predicted it will be equally hard for Democrats to make that case.
More than eight in 10 people in a new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll say they are unhappy about the economy and 76 percent say the country is still in recession. Obama has a slight net positive on handling the economy (48 percent approve, 46 percent disapprove). Other recent polls show a similar even split on which party would do a better job on the economy — not good news for Democrats, who once had a substantial advantage. In Greenberg's polls, Democrats have fallen from a 14-percentage-point advantage over the GOP in March 2009 to minus 6 points now.
Obama continues to make his forays into the hinterlands – where, the Buffalo News reports, he'll be greeted by a billboard that says "Dear Mr. President, I need a freakin' job. Period." Democrats on the Hill continue to issue statements and fact sheets on the economy (24 statements and 28 fact sheets from Hoyer so far this year, his office says, the outdated Web site notwithstanding). Lawmakers continue to discuss small bills that bear on job creation, and some eventually could make their way to Obama's desk.
The House and Senate are discussing a package that extends unemployment and health insurance benefits, tax breaks for families and small business, maybe more aid to states and localities trying to avoid layoffs. They'd like to get it to Obama by May 24, when lawmakers leave for a Memorial Day recess. Last week, the House passed the new Home Star Energy Retrofit Act to spur energy saving and construction through rebates to contractors. This week, the House plans to reauthorize the America COMPETES program of investments in science, technology, education and math — a bill House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said "comes down to good paying jobs for Americans, strong American leadership in the global economy, and long-term growth for America's workers and families."
When the Senate finishes business next week on its Wall Street reform bill, will it move on and pass those three "jobs" bills? Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, refused to predict the fate of any of them. "All but the routine matters are filibustered by Republicans these days," he said. "Everything requires 60 votes."
There will be five more months of unemployment reports before the election. McInturff says that's not enough time to change voter perceptions about the economy. Democrats don't have the sales skills or the empirical evidence right now to prove him wrong. Improving those skills might be a good use of time while they settle in to wait — and hope — for the evidence.
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