Jonathan Cohn

Obama Is Talking Jobs. Is Anybody Listening?

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You've heard it a million times: The problem with President Obama is that he hasn't spent enough time talking about jobs. Maybe that's true and maybe that isn't. But the last 24 hours has me wondering whether anybody is even listening.

The administration on Wednesday released another report on the economic recovery, such that it is. By its accounting, the stimulus package Obama and the Democrats passed in 2009 created between 2.5 and 3.6 million jobs, raising gross domestic product between 2.7 and 3.2 percent. The estimate was roughly in line with Congressional Budget Office estimates.

You could draw a few conclusions from this report, depending on your political predisposition and ideas about the economy. Maybe it makes you think the stimulus was too big. Or maybe it makes you think the stimulus was too small. But it's hard to come away and not think the administration, and the president, are focusing on the economy.

But did anybody hear about the report? For the first time in a long while, I decided to watch the nightly news. I picked the Brian Williams broadcast on NBC. Economic news didn't come until the tenth minute, after long segments on the oil spill, Dick Cheney, a controversial drug for diabetes, and the latest on possible safety defects in Toyotas. When Williams did turn to economics, it was to mention weak figures on retail spending and the release of minutes from the Federal Reserve. I flipped to ABC, just in time to catch a Jonathan Karl segment about the signs the administration has placed on sites where stimulus money is being spent. Republicans are attacking those signs, some of which cost several thousand dollars, as wasteful spending.

NBC didn't do anything wrong; they had their priorities just right. But it's a reminder of the challenge facing the administration right now. There's an awful lot going on--the oil spill, congressional debates over energy and financial reform, and that's not to mention the two wars going on overseas. At the same time, the voters are angry--really angry--that unemployment is so high. The administration has a response--that they have created a bunch of jobs but not enough, that they'd like to do more but conservatives won't let them. But it's a complicated message and it's not getting through.

Larry Mishel, of the Economic Policy Institute, summed up the situation pretty well in an e-mail:

I think the Recovery Act has been very effective at generating millions of jobs, probably more than the administration claims. The political problem is that nearly all the beneficiaries don’t realize it (people who have jobs because of relief to states, the spending done on unemployment compensation don’t necessarily see the direct link to those policies), that we were in such a deep hole (8.6% unemployment, already lost 4% of job base, and rapidly hurling downward) that even a large increase in jobs didn’t get us to reverse the rising unemployment and get us out of the hole we were thrown into. In that respect the stimulus was too small. A reasonable issue is whether there was that much more the government could have spent effectively in this time period to generate more jobs. The answer to that is probably yes (funded some direct job creation, etc, had less stimulus in tax cuts) but I’m not sure we could have done something so huge that we’d be happy right now. Bush and laissez-faire policies really threw us into a huge hole!*  

Not that the administration is giving up. On Thursday, the Energy Department is releasing a report about $12 billion in stimulus funds it has invested in clean energy transportation, including $2.6 billion to help produce batteries and build charging stations for electric cars. To highlight that progress, President Obama will attend the groundbreaking of a battery plant in Holland, Michigan--a city with 15 percent unemployment.

Over the next few days, I hope to write about Holland, this particular project, and how the Recovery Act is actually working (or not working, depending on your perspective). Of course, I have no idea how many people will be listening.

*Update: Greg Mankiw has a more skeptical take on the administration's stimulus report. Also, here is my first dispatch from Holland, filed on Thursday night.

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