WASHINGTON — What is it about the word jobs that our nation’s leaders fail to understand? How has the most painful economic crisis in decades somehow escaped their notice? Why do they ignore the issues that Americans care most desperately about?

Listening to the debate in Washington, you’d think the nation was absorbed by the compelling saga of deficit reduction. You’d get the impression that in households across America, parents put their children to bed and then stay up half the night sifting through piles of think-tank reports on the kitchen table, trying to calculate whether there will be enough in the Social Security trust fund to pay benefits beyond 2037.

And you’d be wrong. Those parents are looking at a pile of bills on the kitchen table, trying to decide which ones have to be paid now and which can slide. The question isn’t how to manage health care or retirement costs two decades from now. It’s how the family can make it to the end of the month.

President Obama gives signs of beginning to perceive this disconnect. His Republican opponents, not so much.

Two new polls, both released last week, tell the story. A New York Times/CBS News survey found that 4 out of 10 respondents believe the economy is getting worse — up from 3 out of 10 in October. Economists insist that things are improving; obviously, not so that anyone would notice.

A worrisome 70 percent of those surveyed said the country is heading in the wrong direction. Bad news for Obama is that the poll found his approval down to 46 percent; good news, as far as the president is concerned, is that his most visible GOP antagonist, House Speaker John Boehner, has an approval rating of just 32 percent. Clearly, Americans are not excessively pleased with their leaders.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll found greater pessimism about the economy than at any time in the last two years — possibly because of the sharp hike in gasoline prices, which 71 percent of respondents said had caused financial hardship.

Yet if you followed the debate in Washington, you wouldn’t hear much about the cost of keeping the minivan on the road. All that Americans care about, you’d have to assume, is the national debt and its long-term evolution. If you listened carefully, you’d conclude that the solution — cutting federal medical and retirement benefits — was basically settled, and that the only question is whether to do it with a scalpel or a chain saw.

But the Post poll found this argument untethered to reality. A definitive 78 percent of respondents said they oppose cuts in federal spending on Medicare. An almost equally impressive 69 percent oppose cutting spending on Medicaid. Social Security, the most sacred of bovines, isn’t even on the table — but Republicans and the debt-obsessed commentariat are trying to goad Obama into taking the first whack.

The wise men and women of Washington complain that the American people are sending a contradictory message — that, essentially, they’re acting like spoiled brats who want luxuries they can’t afford. But I think the people are speaking quite clearly and sensibly, and I think politicians had better start listening.

We want an America that takes care of senior citizens in their retirement. We want an America that ensures medical care for the elderly and the poor. We may not yet know how to guarantee these benefits decades from now, but we know precisely where to start: In both surveys, 72 percent of respondents favored raising taxes on households making more than $250,000 a year. Both polls showed some doubt about deep cuts in military spending, but suggested that after the wealthy are asked to contribute their fair share, the defense budget would be the next place to look.

Obama is being slammed by the deficit hawks for not providing “leadership” on the debt. But it turns out that Obama’s position is much closer to that of the American people. A president’s job is not to lead us off a cliff.

And perhaps Obama has learned a thing or two. He spent more than a year talking about health care reform when people wanted to hear about jobs — and his party paid the price in November. Now, debt-crazed Republicans are returning the favor.

Depressed housing prices, an epidemic of foreclosures, 8 million lost jobs — that’s the reality that Americans face every day. Politicians had better start facing it too.

Eugene Robinson’s email address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

(c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group


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