President Obama thinks "Washington has largely taken its eye off the ball" on economic issues, and he's planning a batch of speeches this week to make the case for more action. Good. Because by Obama's own measures, the economy needs a lot of help.
The president has watched some of his biggest economic initiatives falter since winning reelection. He promised 1 million new manufacturing jobs by the end of 2016. But factory employment has fallen for the last four months, and on net is only 13,000 jobs toward that goal.
Obama's plan to double U.S. exports by 2014 has also run into trouble (due in large part to persistently weak global demand, which was certainly foreseeable when Obama made that promise):
Perhaps most discouragingly for everyday Americans, the middle class — the centerpiece of Obama's "middle-out" economic philosophy and of most of his economic speeches — continues to miss out on the fruits of growth in this recovery. Labor Department statistics show median earnings have fallen 4 percent since the recession ended, after adjusting for inflation.
Growth appears to once again be slipping below economists' projections. And the bulk of net job creation this year has been part-time, not full-time, work:
Obama's big new plans this year have focused largely on longer-term attempts to improve economic mobility, such as reducing the cost of college and sending more children to publicly funded preschool. The president's allies, particularly in organized labor, are frustrated that he hasn't pushed harder for things that could boost growth and employment right away, such as infrastructure spending. Reports from the White House on Sunday indicated that Obama will touch all those areas — the longer- and shorter-term initiatives — in his speeches this week.
Speeches are nice. What Americans could use even more, from Obama and from Congress, is a renewed commitment to finding areas of agreement to help nurse the economy back to full employment — serious negotiations with the same urgency as, for example, the immigration bill or raising the federal debt limit.
Such an agreement wouldn't just help the nearly 12 million people who are still looking for work but can't find a job. Full employment is the best way to generate rising wages for workers across the economy, and America is still a long, long way from that.