Obama’s job one is term two

Published 2:50 pm Friday, February 18, 2011


Four huge banners spelling out that word decorate the U.S. Chamber of Commerce headquarters, directly across Lafayette Square from the White House. But those same banners could also be flying from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Last fall, the Chamber and the president fought a fierce battle for control of Congress. But now they have a common interest, accelerating the economic recovery and reducing the unemployment rate. That’s why Obama defied his liberal critics and strolled across the square to address the Chamber and offer, “I will go anywhere, anytime to be a booster for American businesses, American workers and American products.”

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The most important number in American politics is the jobless rate. It was approaching 10 percent in November, and that’s the single biggest reason Democrats got trounced at the polls. Obama knows full well that his chances for re-election depend heavily on his ability to reduce that number and convince voters that the country is headed in the right direction.

Around the White House, job one is term two, and Team Obama has come to acknowledge a basic truth. Businesses create jobs, not unions. Only entrepreneurs, investors and risk-takers can imagine new products and services, expand markets and hire workers.

The union leaders and liberal pressure groups that are squealing in horror at Obama’s pro-business charm offensive don’t understand economics or politics — or their own self-interest, for that matter. Every American who goes back to work in the next 18 months improves the economic recovery — and the president’s chances of keeping his job.

In truth, Obama can play only a limited role here. Surging deficits have severely diminished the appetite for more public spending on Capitol Hill. Even the targeted “investments” he has proposed — in education, technology and infrastructure — face an uphill fight.

But the president does have three weapons he can deploy, and the first is the power of appointment. One key to economic recovery is boosting business confidence. And by choosing William Daley (a former Wall Street executive and Chamber board member) as his new chief of staff, Obama sent a strong signal across Lafayette Square that the White House was open to — and for — business.

Obama’s second asset is the bully pulpit, which he can use in several ways. At the Chamber, he jawboned his business audience, urging them to “get in the game” and start spending and hiring again. And in a series of trips around the country, he has been playing cheerleader in chief, highlighting economic success stories and spreading his message of patriotic Reaganesque optimism: “Now is the time to invest in America.”

The third front in the jobs war is legislation, and here the focus is on trade. As the president told the Chamber, recent export deals with India and China could generate 250,000 new domestic jobs, and a trade pact with South Korea, now awaiting congressional action, could add another 70,000.

Passing the Korean deal is one of Obama’s top priorities, and in a meeting with reporters right after his appointment, Daley made clear that the White House had two goals in mind: creating jobs for workers and goodwill for the president. After meeting with Republicans and business executives, Daley said, “All of them that I’ve talked to, they all go right to Korea and the trade issue.” The reason: “There’s a belief … that can help the economy.”

Even though the Korean deal is clearly in the national interest, it faces plenty of hurdles. Sen. Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, wants more concessions to American beef producers. Republican leaders want to link the Korean pact to two more controversial agreements — with Colombia and Panama — that have been languishing on Capitol Hill. And the left wing of the Democratic Party is trotting out their old protectionist scare tactics about “job killing” trade pacts.

Obama can, and should, brush these obstacles aside. And he will have the Chamber of Commerce, and many Republicans, backing him up. During his first two years in office, Obama chose to push many issues that business resented: wider healthcare coverage, tighter financial and environmental regulations. And Republicans, because they were shut out of power, could follow a cynical (and successful) policy of blaming the Democrats for the economic crisis while doing nothing to help solve it.

Now the plates of power have shifted. Because Republicans won the election, they share authority and responsibility. The president’s agenda is far more business friendly. And for a brief moment at least, before the 2012 campaign heats up, a common purpose seems possible. J-O-B-S.

(Steve Roberts’ new book, “From Every End of This Earth” (HarperCollins), was published in paperback this fall. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at stevecokie@gmail.com.)