The New York Times
By: Jackie Calmes
January 8, 2010
WASHINGTON -- President Obama keeps trying to turn attention to "jobs, jobs, jobs," as his chief of staff has put it.
The president and his party have now entered a midterm election year in which they expect to lose seats in Congress after big gains in the last two cycles. Just how many they lose will probably hinge more on pocketbook politics than on any other issue: whether voters believe the still-sluggish economy, as evidenced by the jobless rate, is reviving, and whether Mr. Obama and Congressional Democrats deserve credit or blame.
The employment situation is only the most visible of the economic policy challenges that Mr. Obama faces.
His push to overhaul financial regulation is bogged down on Capitol Hill. The housing market is still weak and his programs to help homeowners have had little impact. The Federal Reserve is under pressure from inflation hawks to begin tightening policy, while deficit hawks are demanding that government spending be restrained -- even as some economists say more stimulus is needed to avert prolonged economic sluggishness or even another recession.
But the measures by which voters are most likely to judge his success are the unemployment rate and the pace of job creation. So after an inaugural year in which Mr. Obama was absorbed in the overhaul of the health care insurance system and by a prolonged internal debate over a military buildup in Afghanistan, the White House has been trying to orchestrate a shift to showcase Mr. Obama as concerned and focused on doing everything within his power to create jobs.
But the employment report for December, which showed further job losses instead of the hoped-for gains, suggested that time might be running out for Democrats to show significant progress before voters start making up their minds -- say, by summer.
Meanwhile, the world keeps intruding as Mr. Obama tries to execute his promised pivot.
No sooner was the president home on Monday from his Hawaiian holiday break than he was closeted for days at the White House with his national security team, on responses to the foiled Christmas Day airliner attack.
With House and Senate Democrats now in the home stretch of their negotiations for a compromise on health care legislation, he will have to be more directly involved than ever before in those gritty legislative details.
Anita Dunn, until recently Mr. Obama's communications director, said that when the health care bill was completed, "that will give the administration more space to really communicate to the American people about those things that have been done and that the president continues to push forward on to make the economy work for middle-class families."
Mr. Obama, in his Friday afternoon statement on the job numbers, called them a reminder "that we have to continue to work every single day to get our economy moving again. For most Americans, and for me, that means jobs."
Mr. Obama was speaking at a White House event to call attention to his program for encouraging the creation of jobs linked to clean energy sources. He did not call for any new initiatives, though the White House has been refining a proposed package of tax incentives and other measures that Mr. Obama is likely to highlight in his State of the Union address in a few weeks.
The responses by Republicans to the jobs report on Friday reflected their belief that Mr. Obama was vulnerable to the charge that he and the Democrats are flailing.
"It's time," said Michael Steele, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, that Mr. Obama "finally do what he should have been doing over the past year -- put his full and undivided attention on fixing our economy."
At the same time, he and other Republican leaders suggest that Democrats are doing too much in the way of government intervention in the economy. Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, said in a statement that "unless Washington gets out of the way" Americans will not be able to get out of "this mess."
The fact is that juggling issues is just part of being president. Unlike a candidate for the job, a president is more buffeted by events and less able to stay "on message."
The challenge for Mr. Obama, then, is to find ways to telegraph his concerns about the economy while also looking like he has done something about it.
His chief contribution -- the $787 billion stimulus package -- became law nearly a year ago; recent extensions and pending proposals building on the package will bring it to about $1 trillion in tax cuts and spending. While economists generally agree it has helped avert even greater job losses, Republicans seize on the continued high unemployment rate to argue that the plan has been a costly failure.
Many economists expect job growth to resume by February or March. The unemployment rate, however, is expected to remain as high as 10.5 percent through Election Day in November, as discouraged people who have left the job market decide to resume their search.
Assuming the economists are right, Democrats have to hope that voters focus on monthly gains in new jobs as a sign of progress. Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster, said polling evidence suggested that was what many voters would do.
But David Winston, a political consultant who advises Congressional Republican leaders, said the unemployment rate was the most important indicator for voters assessing Mr. Obama's performance.
"If this number doesn't significantly improve, that's going to be a negative for him and for his party," Mr. Winston said.
And, he added, voters are liable to ask, "Why all the focus on health care when you should have been dealing with unemployment?"