The challenge is magnified by the disappointing record of Obama’s previous job creation initiatives. What few jobs his programs have created, starting with the 2009 fiscal stimulus package, have come at a tremendous cost to the taxpayers. New York Times columnist David Brooks lists several expensive government “green energy” initiatives which have failed to generate the plentiful good new jobs that Obama has promised.
A $186 million federal project to weatherize homes in California has generated only 538 new jobs. A grant to another American company to design new solar panels will create more jobs in China than in the US because that is where the panels will eventually be manufactured. In addition, the former director of General Electric’s Smart Grid Initiative has written that when the smart electric power grids in this country are finally up and running, at tremendous cost to the federal taxpayers, they will actually eliminate the 28,000 jobs of today’s electric meter readers, replacing them with automatic sensors.
AN ANGRY UNION BASE
Obama also must try to minimize the frustration among his liberal base supporters, many of whom feel he is too quick to compromise, and has failed to deliver on many of his 2008 campaign promises.
This includes organized labor, which had hoped that Obama would push through a sweeping agenda that would help boost sagging union membership and strength.
Instead, labor now finds itself under siege. Public employee unions are in a drawn-out fight for their very survival in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states where GOP governors and legislatures have curbed collective bargaining rights.
Unions had hoped that with Obama and the Democrats in control of both houses of Congress after the 2008 election, they would quickly pass legislation to make it easier for them to organize workers. But business groups fought that proposal hard, and it never came to a vote.
Many members of organized labor are also furious over Obama’s unfulfilled promises to focus upon job creation and for putting far more effort into the passage of Obamacare than finding jobs for millions of unemployed American workers.
They were also disappointed when Obama came out in favor of trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama that most unions say will cost American jobs. He also has failed to push for implementation of his campaign promise to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.50 an hour.
UNIONS SEPARATING FROM OBAMA AND DEMOCRATS
As a result, unions have begun shifting money and resources out of Democratic congressional campaigns and back to the states in a furious effort to reverse or limit GOP measures meant to weaken union power and influence.
The AFL-CIO’s president, Richard Trumka, says its part of a new strategy for labor to build an independent voice separate from the Democratic Party.
This summer, Trumka went so far as to accuse Obama of working with Tea Party Republicans on deficit reduction instead of “stepping up to the plate” on jobs.
Labor unions and other liberal groups want Obama to push now for another major stimulus bill with hundreds of billions of dollars in new spending on infrastructure projects like roads, bridges and transit systems. Even if it’s rejected by the GOP-controlled House, unions want to see Obama show more leadership.
However, if he does propose another big spending stimulus package, Obama will leave himself open to GOP charges that he is making the job of reducing the deficit and eventually balancing the budget even more difficult, undermining the agreement which he just concluded with the GOP to raise the debt limit ceiling.
OBAMA’S EMBARRASSING SILENCE
The White House has countered labor dissatisfaction by trying to play up Obama’s few economic successes. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis defended Obama’s record, saying that the administration has established many programs to create jobs, extended unemployment insurance benefits and helped save the auto industry.
On Monday, Labor Day, Obama went to Detroit, a once-prosperous city whose auto industry was nearly destroyed by unreasonable union demands, and which now faces 15% unemployment. He appeared before a union audience on the same stage with Teamster President Jimmy Hoffa who introduced the president with an explicit and profane declaration of war on the Republicans and the Tea Party.
Hoffa said, “We got to keep an eye on the battle that we face: The war on workers. And you see it everywhere, it is the Tea Party. And you know, there is only one way to beat and win that war. The one thing about working people is we like a good fight. And you know what? They’ve got a war, they got a war with us and there’s only going to be one winner. . . President Obama, this is your army. We are ready to march. Let’s take these [expletive] out and give America back to an America where we belong.”
Obama campaigned for president in 2008 on a promise to restore civility to American politics. But when he took the stage, he did not rebuke Hoffa for his provocative comments. Instead Obama said that he was “proud” of Hoffa.
Later the White House spokesman declined to condemn or distance Obama from the open hostility of Hoffa’s remarks introducing the president.
THE SHOVEL READY JOBS THAT WEREN’T
Two years ago, Obama’s huge stimulus package was sold to the public on the claim that it would quickly create large numbers of good jobs by funding so-called “shovel ready” infrastructure improvement projects which would also result in long term benefits to the economy. That did not happen either. In fact, only a small fraction of the huge stimulus package went to pay for infrastructure work. Also because of a requirement for quick completion, most of the infrastructure projects which were funded by the stimulus package turned out to be routine maintenance work, such as bridge repairs and the repaving of existing roads. Almost none of the money went to serious new infrastructure projects which typically take several years to complete.
The White House has acknowledged this shortfall, and Obama actually joked abut it this past June, when he said at a meeting of his council on jobs and competitiveness that “shovel ready was not as shovel-ready as we expected.”
The White House has recently floated the idea once again of trying to generate jobs by funding more infrastructure projects. However, in the current climate of concern over deficit spending, Obama will have to do a much better job of explaining where the infrastructure money will go than he did two years ago if he expects to win Congressional approval for it.
DEMOCRATS UNHAPPY TOO
The percentage of Americans who disapprove of Obama’s efforts to create jobs has increased by 10 percentage points since July. Beyond jobs, voters are unhappy with his handling of the entire economy. By a 2 to 1 margin, more Americans now say the administration’s policies are making the economy worse rather than better.
Of the more than six in 10 who now disapprove of Obama’s work on jobs and the economy, nearly half of them “strongly” disapprove.
The latest poll also indicates that the growing pessimism about Obama’s economic leadership is shared by Democrats, nearly two-thirds of whom say that the country is on the wrong track today, vs. only 32 percent of Democrats who say that we are headed in the right direction.
Among political independents whose support was critical to Obama’s victory in the 2008 election, 78 percent see the country as headed in the wrong direction.
On the deficit, which was at the heart of the highly partisan political battle over the raising debt ceiling this summer, Obama got no credit from the voters for brokering a compromise with the Republicans which just defers the hardest debt reduction decisions until later this year. Six in 10 disapprove of Obama’s efforts to bring the federal budget deficit under control, which is basically unchanged from a year ago.
On the fundamental question of the ideal size of government, the latest polls show that 56 percent would prefer to see a smaller federal government, while only 38 percent support Obama’s big government tax and spend policies.
REAGAN’S QUESTION HAUNTS OBAMA
Obama also fares poorly when Americans are asked “Are you better off today than yoiu were four years ago?” That was the famous question that Ronald Reagan used to defeat Jimmy Carter in 1980. By better than 2 to 1, Americans say that they are not as well off financially as they were at the start of Obama’s term.
In the latest poll, just 20 percent of Americans say things are going in the right direction, which is the pessimistic view of the country’s direction since the end of the Bush administration.
Obama’s overall approval rating is down 11 percentage points from the start of 2011, and more than 50% of Americans now say they disapprove of his handling of the presidency.
Obama has also lost the support of those under age 30 who voted for him overwhelmingly in the 2008 election.
The only area where Obama’s approval ratings are better today than a year ago has been his handling of the terrorism threat. By a 62%-32%, Americans approve his performance, largely due to the success of the US Special Forces operation in May which finally located and killed Osama bin Laden.
2 PARALLEL NATIONAL DEBATES
This week, we have seen the start of two parallel national political debates which will take us through next year’s election. The first is a traditional Democrat vs. Republican dispute over the proper size and role of the federal government. The Democrats, under Obama, continue to argue for increased spending and taxation, in other words, more of the same approach we got with 2009 stimulus package. Republicans, on the other hand, with the encouragement of the Tea Party, are calling for a smaller, less intrusive federal government. They claim that the most effective way to stimulate economic growth and job creation is by providing the private sector with more capital for investment, a reduction in regulations that stifle business activity, and reduced tax rates to provide more incentives for small business.
The second debate is over the selection by the Republicans of a suitable candidate to challenge President Obama’s re-election bid.
CAN PERRY HOLD HIS LEAD?
Here, the story is the rapid emergence of Texas Governor Rick Perry as the instant front runner upon entering the race just a few weeks ago, leaping ahead of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann.
However, Perry’s big initial lead may not last. He has yet to be tested in head to head debates with the other candidates in the GOP field, or by the intense rigors on the national campaign trail. His first test big test is this week’s GOP candidate debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California.
Alex Gage, a Republican strategist, predicted that by the end of this month, “we will know if Perry is for real as the vetting process goes on and as people get an opportunity to see all these [candidates] on the same stage and listen to them.”
By the end of this month, we will also find out whether former Alaska governor Sarah Palin will enter the race. That decision may also depend on the reaction of the party’s base to the GOP candidate debate this week and two others scheduled for later this month in Florida. She is more likely to enter the race if, by the end of this month, many Republicans still say they are unhappy with their presidential choices.
OBAMA LOOKS PETTY OVER TIMING
This week’s GOP debate was almost overshadowed when the White House announced last week that Obama had requested a joint session of Congress that same night, in order to deliver a speech presenting his new job creation program.
The request set off an embarrassing exchange between the White House and House Speaker John Boehner, when the Republican leader refused to call for a joint session of Congress that night. The dispute made the president look mean and petty by trying to steal the media spotlight from his GOP rivals, whose debate date had been scheduled for some time.
David Axelrod, the former White House senior adviser and now chief strategist for Obama’s reelection campaign, predicted that Obama’ jobs speech will try to concentrate on differentiating his approach from those of his GOP opponents. “There will be some sharp distinctions between his approach and the approach of the Republicans. To the extent those distinctions are clear, it will be a predicate for the campaign. Obviously the objective is to get things done, but it’s important that people understand what we’re driving for, and he’s going to let them know clearly and consistently,” Axelrod said.
During the campaign, Axelrod expects Obama to argue that it’s hard “to create an economy in which people can get decent jobs and raise a family at the same time we’re cutting back on our commitment to spending on education and research and development that will create innovation and jobs.”
Republicans have scheduled two more presidential candidate debates in coming weeks, both in Florida. The first is scheduled for September 12 in Tampa, the second for September 22 in Orlando.
Mitch Romney, who was unseated as the GOP frontrunner by Perry’s late entry into the race, also unveiled his own job creation program Tuesday at a speech in Nevada. Even before that, Romney started to attack Perry, though not by name, calling him a career politician who isn’t capable of solving the country’s economic mess.
OBAMA PLANNING A MUDSLINGING CAMPAIGN
While Obama’s low job approval ratings are clearly troubling, they are not necessarily fatal to his re-election hopes. Given the grim unemployment outlook and dismal popularity numbers, Obama’s best hope for re-election is the hope that the GOP field of presidential candidates will be so heavily influenced by the priorities of the Tea Party that the eventual nominee will emerge locked into positions which independent and moderate voters will see as too extreme. That is the only way that he and the Democrats can keep the election from becoming a voter referendum on Obama’s first term. In other words, to win, Obama must convince the voters that his GOP opponent will be an even worse president than he is.
Obama’s aides say the election will be “a choice, not a referendum.” That means that Obama will make a concerted effort to divert attention from his first term to focus on the shortcomings of the GOP candidate. More bluntly, we should expect a lot of Democratic mudslinging relying heavily on anything they can find to discredit Obama’s opponent.
Democratic strategist Doug Hattaway says that in order to accomplish this, Obama must link all the current GOP candidates to congressional Republicans, who are, as a group, even more unpopular with voters than the president. Making the linkage might not be easy. So far, the GOP presidential candidates have avoided the bitter fight in Washington over deficit spending, but that could change over the course of the upcoming GOP candidate debates as the candidates seek to differentiate themselves from one another.
“The economy is not going to come roaring back before the election, so he has to give them a vision” for a future with jobs and with social justice, Hattaway said.
The Washington Post and the Associated Press contributed to this story.