Commentary Magazine


But They Want Jobs

John Judis lets the cat out of the bag: health-care reform isn’t going to help Obama’s political problems, even if it passes. He explains that the real issues for voters are high unemployment and a weak economy. And it’s not enough for the rate of job loss to slow:

Moreover, history suggests that it is not enough for the economy to be headed in the right direction; it has to be headed in the right direction in tangible ways that voters can see. Economists pronounced the recession of the early 1990s over in March 1991. But, when unemployment continued to rise through 1991 and most of 1992 and real wages stagnated, the public perceived the economy to still be declining–and it punished George H.W. Bush accordingly.

Well, that gets dicey if economists are right in predicting high unemployment for years to come. And Judis notes that Obama is doing far worse than his predecessors:

Obama’s disapproval ratings exceed those of every president since Eisenhower at this early stage–except for Clinton, who had similar disapproval ratings nine months into his first term. And they can’t be explained as the inevitable result of the administration’s honeymoon period coming to an end: Eisenhower, Kennedy, and George H.W. Bush all saw their popularity rise during the same period Obama’s has fallen.

So what can Obama do? It’s easy to say what would really help: rapid job growth, the revival of the housing market, transit systems that aren’t breaking down, the reinstitution of after-school programs, crowded shopping malls and auto showrooms–the kind of things that go with a robust economic recovery. But the U.S. economy isn’t going to morph overnight from its current woeful condition to a state of buoyant full employment. . . . What Obama and the Democrats have to hope for, then, is not a full recovery, but sufficient improvement in jobs, wages, and public services to convince voters that the economy is on the mend.

It doesn’t dawn on Judis–nor, more important, on Obama–that the administration shouldn’t just “hope” things get better but that it must get off the health-care kick (replete with taxes, mandates, and fines) and deploy policies that would spur job growth. Judis is reduced to arguing that Obama must pass health-care reform now to “ward off the stigma of incompetence and ineffective leadership that haunted Carter and Clinton during their first two years.” But if in fact some maze of taxes and regulations is enacted, deepening the private sector’s slump, then Obama will only have worsened the country’s economic predicament and his own political problems.

I suspect there are few if any personnel inside the administration that have any understanding of the needed policies that would encourage employers to staff up. They have plenty of academics and liberal politicians, but precious few entrepreneurs. So they throw up their hands–and even worse, devise policies that discourage job creation. Obama might not want to focus on jobs, but the voters certainly will. And if Judis is right, even a “win” on health care won’t restore the president’s political standing.