If you believe in economic recovery, it will come

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, April 21, 2010

It's morning in America.

The problem for the White House is that it's way too early -- about 2 a.m. in this economic recovery. The neighbor's cat is howling, somebody's car alarm is going off, and the nation is irritable and disoriented.

By the time President Obama faces reelection in 2012, there should be, as there was in 1984 and 1996, a beautiful sunrise on the horizon: Three years of solid economic growth, unemployment down to about 7 percent, and a federal deficit cut by more than half. But daybreak will probably come too late for Democrats to avoid a shellacking at the polls this fall -- and that could explain Vice President Biden's subdued speech Tuesday about the economy.

"We all know that the rate of job growth is too slow to bring down the unemployment rate, and the continued weakness in the job creation remains a major challenge," Biden confessed to a group of economic wise people the Brookings Institution assembled at the Mayflower hotel. "Most Americans, at least in the neighborhoods I grew up in, don't feel GDP growth. They don't sit around the table if they've lost their jobs and talk about how the Nasdaq is climbing." The recovery, Biden admitted, "has not yet" reached the middle class.

But he had a suggestion for a nation that still does not think the dark economic night is over: The recovery exists if you just believe in it.

"I think it's fair to say that most believe we're generally turning the corner and moving from contraction to expansion," he announced.

He placed the nation "at the beginning of an economic expansion, as I believe we are."

"Folks, ultimately, we believe that this is the right path -- the path that will lead us to a robust economic recovery," he added.

He acknowledged that some -- including a few of his own advisers -- have different beliefs about the efficacy of the administration's policies, such as Obama's green-jobs program. "Now, look, I recognize -- and in my own shop, as well -- there are some folks here who study the issue who may question whether these energy investments create enough jobs to actually make a real difference," the vice president said. "But we believe they will."

It was a faith-based initiative for the American economy. But the vice president seemed weary as he recited this economic version of the Nicene Creed. He spoke for just 23 minutes, a mere clearing of the throat by Biden standards, and took no questions. He hewed closely to his teleprompter, sometimes reading the words without evident comprehension.

After listing various ingredients that a financial regulatory reform must include, Biden said: "The president and I will not support any reform that fails to address these fundamental problems." He then moved on to the next line in the speech, but he mistakenly read it as though he were listing the "fundamental problems" he had just mentioned: "Powerful. Political. Lobby. With cynical tactics and opponents." At this point, Biden must have realized he wasn't making sense, for he stopped and tried again: "Opponents of reform are not going to stop us from getting this right."

Yet Biden's leap of faith transcended his lackadaisical delivery as he enumerated his beliefs about the economy. "If the next expansion fails to lift the middle class," he said, "it will not be the expansion that the president and I believe this nation so badly needs."

He detailed what he said were the false beliefs of the previous administration: "the belief that markets would self-regulate," and "the belief that deficits don't matter." He admitted that the Obama administration had increased the deficit, but only because more government spending was needed to fight the recession, "as you all suggested and we believed."

Biden challenged the belief system of his audience: "Do any of you believe that we can fully recover and lead the world in the 21st century with the same energy policy that we've had in the last century? Do any of you believe we can reduce the dependence on foreign oil without investing in alternative sources of energy, renewable energy? And do any of you believe we can gain a political consensus for doing that without growing clean energy industries here in America?"

Biden, for one, does not believe any of those things. Neither does he believe that income inequality can continue to grow. "I do not believe we can politically sustain the path we have been on," he said. This, he explained, is because the middle class would become economic nonbelievers. "Folks, the system is not going to work if they do not believe they're getting a fair share," Biden reasoned.

Fortunately, the administration had solutions for this, too, including "true health-care security -- which I believe we accomplished."

It was an unbelievable performance. The question is whether Americans, waiting for dawn, will find it credible.

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