POLITICS SEPTEMBER 22, 2010
What a president does communicates a message to the American people, and, sometimes, what he does not do communicates a message as well. It can inform the public’s opinion about what he thinks is wrong and what he thinks is right; what needs fixing and what is working.
This principle helps explain why, despite saying he is on their side in helping the economy improve, President Obama has struggled to convince the American public that he understands and wants to alleviate their suffering. Research jointly sponsored by the Center for American Progress Action Fund (my employer) and Democracy Corp recently found that, if voters don’t see or feel the progress Democrats say that we are making (and that Republicans are trying to undo), they will interpret that to mean their leaders are content with the state the economy. “People are intensely dissatisfied with the economy and are looking for solutions, anything less sounds like excuses,” the research said. Echoing this report, a recent New York Times poll found that 60 percent of people don’t think Obama has made significant headway in fixing the economy—and 53 percent don’t think he has a plan to create jobs. (Only 38 percent think he does.)
In other words, when people don’t think you have a plan to solve their most pressing problem, they are going to lose some faith in you. And actions, not words, are the key tools needed to prevent this crisis of confidence.
Perhaps recognizing this dynamic, the president took action a few weeks ago by proposing the infrastructure bank and business tax cuts. But he shouldn’t stop there: With six weeks to go before Election Day, Obama should focus on voters’ question of who can lead us into economic growth by proposing several new ideas for job creation.
From now through at least November, Obama should introduce these, big and small, legislative as well as executive. They could either create jobs directly or lay the groundwork for an environment in which jobs could be created more easily. Call it a New Jobs for the New Economy Initiative, and introduce a specific solution for a specific problem each day. That way, Obama could show the American people that he understands what still needs to be fixed. He wouldn’t just be claiming progress and pointing fingers at Republicans; he would be communicating to voters that he gets it, through his actions.
There are plenty of ideas Obama could propose. For example, he could propose that the energy tax credits established in the 2009 recovery act be maintained, rather than allowed to expire. He could propose a national jobs bank that could connect people to any jobs that are unfilled. He could propose a set of loan guarantees for investments in schools, hospitals, and clinics—which would both provide public services and create jobs. Or offer a new revolving loan fund for manufacturing that would make it easier for manufacturers to get capital and credit to spur new jobs.
And he could build on ideas he’s already introduced. For instance, Obama could remind people about the infrastructure bank by staging events where he highlights the kinds of jobs it would create. He could also make a special push for the bank to help expand mass transit in suburban areas.
Through this daily effort, the president would be able to drive home a broader narrative about what is motivating him as the country’s leader in this tumultuous time, and what path he wants the new economy to take. And it would allow him to show the American public his empathy, intellect, and communication skills—which could improve both his image and his party’s.
The moment is ripe for this initiative. With the congressional session ending in a few weeks, Obama would be able to cast his ideas as a dispute with Republicans in an election season, rather than policies he’d need to fight for in an outgoing Congress that, thanks to those very same Republicans, has often blockaded economic progress. What’s more, the president is no longer hemmed in by public worries about the deficit: Compared to a few months ago, a recent CBS/New York Times poll showed the deficit barely registering as a blip of people’s radars of concern.
Granted, the world can intervene in any president’s agenda: Issues like peace in the Middle East or the BP oil spill can grab the media narrative and force an administration to react. But, no matter what news arises between now and November, Obama should keep a sharp focus on new jobs proposals. By laying out a plan for the economy he could show confidence not in what he has done, but in what he will do, and demonstrate the leadership people still seem to be yearning for. What’s more, he could force Republicans to constantly (even daily) attack his economic ideas, which would shine a light on the fact that they have virtually none of their own, and that they care more about their own jobs than those of the American people.
Some may argue that this plan would be too little, too late—that it might not be credible to offer so many ideas this late in the game. But two months is an eternity in politics. The public wants to know how things are going to get better, and the Republican Party just demonstrated its lack of seriousness to address the real challenges the country faces when it nominated Christine O’Donnell. Now is the ideal time for Obama to act.
Neera Tanden is the chief operating officer of the Center for American Progress. She served in the Obama and Clinton administrations.