No matter what happens, the top issue is jobs

Published 2:12 pm Monday, November 30, 2009

In recent days, there have been four major events with the potential to dominate news coverage for many, many days: the off-year elections, the Fort Hood shootings, the House passage of Obama-PelosiCare and the rise of unemployment to 10.2 percent. In most discussions — in the papers, on television and on radio — unemployment has ranked fourth among the four. The others were newer, or more immediate, or more compelling, at least for a while.

But the news will always return to unemployment when other topics fade. “Any time you have unemployment this high, it is the No. 1 story, whether it’s being written about or not,” says David Winston, a Republican pollster who for months has urged GOP officeholders to focus steadily on the issue. Double-digit unemployment is the default top story of the year; whatever else happens, the national conversation will come back to unemployment as long as the jobless rate remains unacceptably high.

You don’t have to be a Republican strategist to agree. “Obama’s focus on health care rather than jobs, when the economy is still so fragile … could make it appear that the administration has its priorities confused,” writes Robert Reich, former Clinton secretary of labor and a supporter of nationalized health care. “While affordable health care is critically important to Americans, making a living is more urgent.”

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Reich wrote these words nearly a week before the government announced that unemployment had hit 10.2 percent. That news came the day before President Obama went to Capitol Hill to give a pep talk to House Democrats preparing to pass the healthcare bill. Obama stayed in the news in the following days with highly visible statements on health care.

What a difference from the first days of his administration when — with unemployment at 7.6 percent — the president seemed totally focused on jobs.

“Experts agree that if nothing is done, the unemployment rate could reach double digits,” Obama said in his weekly address on Jan. 24, urging Congress to quickly pass a proposed $1 trillion stimulus bill.

The nightmare “double digit” scenario became Obama’s mantra. “If we don’t act immediately … the national unemployment rate will approach double digits,” he said in early February at a town hall in Florida. “Approach double digits,” he repeated at a speech in Indiana. “Double digits,” he wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post.

The only way to prevent unemployment from approaching 10 percent, Obama said, was to pass the stimulus, which in the end cost $787 billion. With the stimulus, the administration claimed, unemployment would stay below 8 percent. Without it, joblessness could climb to 9 percent.

Now, with the stimulus passed and unemployment at 10.2 percent, the White House is not only distracted by health care but also divided on its own record. On one hand, Obama and Vice President Biden say the stimulus is working, and will work more in the future. On the other, top economic adviser Christina Romer suggests the stimulus has run its course and unemployment will likely “remain at severely elevated levels” through 2010.

The stimulus is the one big issue that is entirely Obama’s, and he’s losing support on it. “He has not managed to accomplish the basic thing that the American people want, and that is to provide some sense that the economy is going in the right direction,” says Winston.

Recently, Biden — who famously admitted that the Obama economic team didn’t understand the depth of the economic crisis — headed to Detroit to headline fundraisers for two Democratic congressmen at the MGM Grand Casino Hotel. It cost $5,000 to get into the VIP reception.

Biden was met by a Republican ad, “Get Back to Work.” “We’ve lost 178,000 jobs (in Michigan) since Congress passed the massive spending bill that President Obama promised would help with jobs,” the ad says. “While he’s here, will the vice president be working on ways to reduce an unemployment rate of 15.3 percent, the highest of any state in the country?” The question answered itself; there were fundraisers to attend.

In the coming weeks, Obama will be involved in contentious Senate fighting over health care. He may travel to Copenhagen for international global-warming talks. And he’ll be in Oslo to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize — a few days after the next set of unemployment numbers are due.

There will be a lot of news. But for millions of Americans, joblessness will remain the big story, no matter what the president does.