The Job-Maker's Trap

July 30, 2010

Daytime television isn't the usual sphere for sharp
questions. But when Elisabeth Hasselbeck, one of
the hosts of The View, seized her turn to ask the
biggest interview question of the biggest interview
subject of her career, she leaned toward President
Barack Obama and punched the word "jobs" six
times in 25 seconds. Why, she demanded, aren't
people getting their jobs back? She has become, she
said, frustrated by his job promises.

Obama returned a practiced response: "You're
absolutely right that it's not enough, and if you
don't have a job right now, the only answer you
want to hear is: 'You're hired.'"

There are 14.6 million Americans waiting to hear
that. Many of them voted for the Obama who
made employment oaths as a campaigner. Now a
television personality was asking him the same
question they would have.

In politics, job creation can be a populist life raft:
Vote for me, and I will create a blizzard of
timecards, spinning policies into paychecks. In
governing, it can be the Titanic.

"If we get our mojo back over the next several
months, then I am absolutely confident that we are
going to be doing terrific," the president promised
his daytime television interrogators yesterday as a
swollen audience took in The View.

Can mojo be legislated? Can it be enacted? Or is
Obama hoping his friend, the hand of history,
nudges the U.S. economy back to life?

Candidate Obama stood in a Missouri hall two
years ago today and invited people to choose "a
new direction" for the economy. "We can end tax
breaks for corporations that ship jobs overseas and
give them to companies that create jobs here in this
country. We can make sure that our trade
agreements work for both Wall Street and Main
Street. And we can create nearly two million jobs
by investing in our crumbling infrastructure and
building new schools, roads, and bridges."

The 2008 presidential election polls had John
McCain and Obama trading narrow leads until
September, when untenable avarice robbed all
possibility of sexiness from naked credit default
swaps, and swift doom rolled down Wall Street.
Within days, the economy was the sole topic for
voters, and Obama had their trust.

By late 2008, Lower Manhattan could have lost a
head-to-head public-opinion contest with a roiling
ball of serpents. Americans had generally declared
the hereditary seat of U.S. economic power
bankrupt -- if not monetarily, then morally. So,
people looked down the seaboard and demanded
Washington get into the financial rescue business.
The new president would quickly get a chance to
live up to his campaigning.

Combating corporations shipping work overseas?
He's tried to hit foreign reinsurers for dodging U.S.
taxes, but no luck, yet. Trade agreements for Main
Street? Some action there, but how much will
trickle down to Main Street remains to be seen.
Ah, but in the area of infrastructure spending -- and
dozens of other flavors of public payment --
Obama and his congressional allies swung open the
gates.

Having inherited an economy in crisis and an
employment rate in free fall, Obama's most ardent
supporters counted on him to be another Franklin
D. Roosevelt. Like FDR, he did take swift action
with a budget-bending economic stimulus package,
part of a Keynesian fire hose of intervention.

The White House's Council of Economic Advisers
said this month that last year's economic stimulus
"raised employment relative to what it otherwise
would have been by between 2.5 and 3.6 million."
The council is entitled to its mathematic
methodology, but the plain old Bureau of Labor
Statistics shows that since the signing of the
stimulus 17 months ago, 1.6 million fewer
Americans are working, though numbers are slowly
rising.

Much attention has been devoted to America's
corporate giants sitting on massive supplies of
cash. Could they knock down this 9.5%
unemployment rate? Yes. So, why aren't they
spending, putting people to work and cranking up
their own output? Because -- like the college
student spending a few more years chasing a
master's or the 50-year-old office manager clinging
to a job she hates -- they're just not sure what's
going on.

Even when all is right and the key ingredients --
monetary policy, trade policy and corporate
taxation -- are sound, government isn't the pot from
which America's real, lasting jobs spring. The truth:
New, small businesses create most jobs, according
to U.S. Census and labor numbers. And whatever
else he may be, Obama is not an entrepreneur.

His mojo hopes had to turn from job generating to
job salvaging in the last year. It's possible that
some among the millions the White House says
would have otherwise lost their jobs are aware of
being rescued. Are they aware enough to translate
that into votes later? The November mid-terms
may answer that question.

In the devil's bargain with job-creation, a politician
is often rolling the dice. It may be that the only job
a politician can truly guarantee to open up is his
own.

"We've still got a long way to go before we're all
the way back," Obama told The View. His journey
back may require three or four million new W-2s,
and according to his latest poll numbers, about a 20-
point climb back to his previous peak of America’s
approval.  
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