By Eugene Robinson
It’s sobering that three-fourths of Americans, according to a new Washington Post poll, have little or no confidence in our elected leaders to solve the nation’s economic problems. At this point, though, it’s hardly surprising.
If anything, we should be shocked and alarmed that 26 percent of our fellow citizens apparently believe the president and Congress are going to make it all better. Are they not paying attention? Or are they delusional?
The manic-depressive swings we’ve seen in the stock market all week just serve to heighten the general anxiety, like the soundtrack of a horror film. Seesaw gains or losses of hundreds of points on the Dow tend to mask the overall trend, which is downward—and also distract attention from the fact that markets in Europe and Asia are heading in the same direction. The world is trillions of dollars poorer than it was just a couple of weeks ago.
Trillions, by the way, are the new billions.
The survey by the Post shows that while officials in Washington may be clueless in the face of economic turmoil, most of their constituents see things quite clearly. Seven out of 10 respondents said the federal government is “mostly focused on the wrong things”—and blamed Democrats and Republicans for this misdirected focus in precisely equal measure.
How many times does this message have to be delivered? In poll after poll, Americans have said their top concern is the jobs crisis. Unemployment is at 9.1 percent. The worst economic slowdown since the Great Depression robbed the nation of 9 million jobs and only a fraction have been replaced. The economy is adding jobs at a snail’s pace that doesn’t even keep up with growth of the potential work force.
Jobs. The issue is jobs.
Yet the president and Congress have spent months focused on the national debt—a problem that needs to be addressed, to be sure, but not when unemployment is at staggering levels and the “recovery” is beginning to look like a mirage. Recent data suggest the economy is in danger of sinking back into recession; even if it doesn’t, the current rate of growth is too anemic to have much impact on the jobs front.
Oh, and what drama will absorb Washington for the next several months? The deliberations of the congressional “super committee,” a 12-member panel that is supposed to chart a way forward on ... debt. Have I mentioned that the most urgent crisis facing the nation right now is jobs?
Only one-third of those polled said they have confidence in President Obama to make “the right decisions about the country’s economic future,” the Post found. That may sound discouraging, but only 18 percent of respondents said they have confidence in congressional Republicans to make the right decisions.
For good reason, in my view: The Republican solution has been to eliminate jobs rather than create them. Last month, the economy added 117,000 jobs—a performance so weak that unemployment changed little. The private sector actually added 154,000 jobs, but the public sector lost 37,000 jobs as Republicans continue to impose an austerity program at an inopportune moment.
The GOP seems to believe that a federal, state or local job somehow isn’t a “real” job. I’ll bet most Americans know otherwise.
Here we are, with interest rates at or near historical lows. The federal government, despite suffering a credit downgrade to AA-plus from Standard & Poor’s, is able to borrow as much money as it wants at an absurdly low cost. Meanwhile, we have a large and growing backlog of infrastructure needs. Roads, bridges and dams need to be repaired; new airports need to be built and old ones refurbished; we need to upgrade the electrical grid to take advantage of new energy sources that do not depend on fossil fuels.
Putting two and two together, you might expect the president and Congress to design and implement a nationwide project of infrastructure renewal that would put Americans back to work, spark a burst of growth and leave us with tangible assets that would increase our competitiveness in the global economy.
But you’d be disappointed. And you’d lose faith in the ability of officials to respond to a crisis they don’t even seem to notice.
The disconnect between what the nation cares about and what its leaders care about seems to widen day by day. Hello? Is anybody in Washington listening? Does anybody even care?
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group