By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
President Obama's renewed focus on the economy underscores an elemental truth of politics. For all the attention the White House and Congress have given to health care and Afghanistan this fall, no problem poses a greater political threat to the Democrats in 2010 than joblessness and slow economic growth.
The clamor in Congress for more attention on the economy has been rising by the week as Democrats look to the opening of a midterm election year with unemployment at 10 percent and forecast to stay in that range for some months. The White House, too, has gotten the message. For the third time in six days, President Obama will put employment at the forefront of his agenda, with a speech Tuesday outlining new ideas to create jobs.
"We've made a huge amount of progress in terms of turning off the flood of job loss," said White House senior adviser David Axelrod. "But there's also a big hole. Over the course of this recession, 8 million people lost jobs. That's a lot of people. We've got our work cut out for us. We're moving in the right direction, but we've got to make more progress."
But will the Democrats' attention to the economy prove to be little more than an exercise in checking a box or the beginning of a sustained and determined focus on a problem that many Americans fear has gotten too little attention from their elected leaders? Will the economy have to compete in the coming year with issues like climate change and immigration reform, which Obama has promised to push once the health-care debate ends, or will the administration delay shifting to those problems until it has dealt more successfully with the economy?
Democratic strategists are keenly aware of the potential problem for their party. "There is a sense that we pick up that people are not only worried about the substantive issue, but they're not sure that Washington is focused on that issue and they'd like to see Washington focused much more on that issue," said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster.
Although the unemployment rate ticked down from 10.2 percent to 10 percent in the latest report, released Friday, about one-sixth of the workforce is either out of work or underemployed. Not since the early 1980s has the jobless rate hit levels this high, and Republicans suffered major losses in the 1982 midterm election. Democrats could suffer the same fate next year.
"Democrats are now scrambling to catch up, not only with public concern but also the facts on the ground, which are pretty dismal," said William Galston of the Brookings Institution, where Obama will speak Tuesday. "This job market has deteriorated far more than anyone thought possible even a year ago."
Obama and the Democrats face two challenges. The first is to find the substantive policies, and the money to pay for them, that will prime the job-market pump and stimulate more widespread hiring in the private sector. The second will be to demonstrate a commitment to economic issues at a time when other problems will be competing for the president's attention.
"The one thing the White House has to its advantage is the bully pulpit and the ability to dominate the news agenda," said Carl Forti, a Republican strategist. "The problem the Obama White House has had is there are too many issues they're trying to center on."
To which Jennifer Crider, communications director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, responded, "Which crisis is the White House not supposed to deal with? When you look at how big a ditch the previous administration had driven us into, there were multiple crises that needed to be addressed."
Failure to enact health-care legislation after spending much of 2009 on the issue would be politically "devastating" to the Democrats, in the estimation of one strategist who advises congressional Democrats and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the dilemma for the party. "But they've got to put that to bed," he added. "People are more concerned about jobs than health care. They want to see the president and Congress focusing on that."
"Most people still think health care needs to be reformed, even those who don't like this legislation," Democratic strategist Steve McMahon said. "But what's immediately in front of everyone? It's the economy."
Democratic strategist Geoff Garin said the party needs both an improvement in the economy and public recognition that things are getting better. He said his surveys show that even if Americans express dissatisfaction with the economy, if they believe things have started to improve, they are far more supportive of Obama than those who see no improvement. "If 2010 is a year where people think things are bad and not getting better, there's no question that it's going to be a rough time for the Democrats," he said.
Obama and the Democrats still may see multiple problems crying out for attention, but missteps in dealing with the economy could wipe out the governing majorities they enjoy on Capitol Hill. Whether Obama's speech Tuesday is the beginning of a shift in emphasis will be closely watched both by the public and the politicians who have to face the voters in November.