By Bill Boyarsky
In his eagerness to compromise with the Republican right, President Barack Obama has forgotten the still-suffering victims of the recession: the long-term unemployed who range from the poorest Americans to those barely holding on to their place in the middle class.
Any mention of them was absent from the celebration of last weekend’s stopgap budget deal, with its $38 million in cuts, except for a brief acknowledgement by Obama on Saturday that “[s]ome of the cuts we agreed to will be painful—programs people rely on will be cut back; needed infrastructure projects will be delayed.”
In the current budget debate, only a few are speaking up strongly for the disenfranchised. One is Democratic Rep. George Miller of California, who said: “The American people have been told the agreement contains both ‘historic’ and ‘painful’ cuts. The question will be painful for whom. Poor and middle class families have already received more than their fair share of pain in this economy while the wealthy and special interests have paid no price.”
The March unemployment figures show who will feel the pain. While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a modest growth in jobs, the national unemployment rate was 8.8 percent. And the number of long-term unemployed—those seeking work for 27 weeks or more—remained the same, as did the total of those classified as “discouraged workers,” people who have given up on finding a job.
These discouraged workers and their families remain a miserable legacy of the recession. Years of unemployment have pushed many down from the middle class toward poverty. The pain from that fall will extend to the next generation, to children denied a chance for the advanced education and training needed to compete for jobs. This is an economic and psychic blow to a large segment of our population.
As Chad Stone, chief economist of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, wrote: “Immediate sharp cuts in government spending of the kind that some policymakers are seeking will make it even harder to restore a healthy job market. We have to create over 7.2 million jobs just to get payroll employment back to its level at the start of the recession in December 2007. At March’s rate of 216,000 jobs a month, that would take almost three years.”
And, he noted, “It remains very difficult to find a job.”
The stopgap spending-cut measure signed by Obama over the weekend doesn’t head in that direction. For example, it reduced by $1.5 billion the money going to high-speed and interstate rail projects, once major job creators in the Obama arsenal. Don’t expect the main agreement he reached with the Republicans over the weekend to be much better when details come out.
Looking toward his 2012 re-election campaign, the president has embraced the Republican budget-cutting line. Even though he is proposing a tax increase for the very rich, he has bought into the Republican narrative that immediate slashing of the deficit is the nation’s most important task.
Just how radical are the Republican plans? Take a look at the proposal of Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, which includes elimination of Medicare and its replacement by government vouchers to help Americans purchase health insurance from private companies. The core of Ryan’s proposal is another massive tax reduction for the wealthy. The president and his campaign team apparently aim to run against the Ryan plan by portraying Obama as a sensible budget cutter, an economizer with a heart. If this can be combined with a modest economic recovery and a weak Republican opponent, the Democrats believe they will win next year. But counting on a weak opponent is no way to win an election, nor is fighting on the opposition’s turf.
Rather, the president should think of those who need help—and those who don’t. In addition to restoring taxes back to the levels of the prosperous Clinton years, he should propose closing the gaping loopholes and giveaways in the tax system. Spending cuts should be phased in over a number of years. These actions would reduce the deficit.
Most of all, the president should provide help for the unemployed millions. Creating jobs should be the nation’s first priority, rather than hacking away at government spending just as a modest recovery may be beginning.
The 2012 re-election campaign seemed to be paramount in Obama’s mind as he spoke to the nation. His words have had the sound of being filtered and heavily vetted, shaped by too many polls and having gone through too many staff meetings. He acts like a candidate afraid of losing.
There is no doubt that Obama should be re-elected. A Republican president, backed by a Republican Congress, would turn the country into another Wisconsin.
But I want to see leadership, resolve and a reflection of Obama’s social conscience. It’s hard to rally behind a man who appears willing to give up his principles in order to keep his job.
White House/Pete Souza
Hey Mr. President, here’s a hint: Obama walks through Lafayette Square with Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett, Chief of Staff Bill Daley, and National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 7.