It’s not a debt and deficit crisis, it’s a jobs crisis. The debt and the deficit are part of it, part of the general fear that we’re on a long slide and can’t turn it around. The federal tax code is part of it—it’s a drag on everything, a killer of the spirit of guts and endeavor. Federal regulations are part of it. The administration’s inability to see the stunning and historic gift of the energy revolution is part of it.
But it’s a jobs crisis that’s the central thing. And you see it everywhere you look.
I’m in Pittsburgh, making my way to the airport hotel. The people movers are broken and we pull our bags along the dingy carpet. There’s an increasing sense in America now that the facades are intact but the machinery inside is broken.
The hotel has entrances on two floors. I search for the lobby, find it. Travelers are milling about, but there’s no information desk, no doorman, no bellman or concierge, just two harried-looking workers at a front desk on the second level. The man who checked me in put his phones on hold when I asked for someone to accompany me upstairs. As we walked to the room I felt I should explain. I told him a trial attorney had told me a while back that there are more lawsuits involving hotels than is generally known, and more crime, so always try to have someone with you when you first go to your room. I thought the hotel clerk would pooh-pooh this. Instead he said, “That’s why we just put up mirrors at each end of the hall, so you can see if someone’s coming.” He made it sound like an amenity.
“What should we do then, scream?” I asked. He laughed and shrugged: “Yeah.”
Things are getting pretty bare-bones in America. Doormen, security, bellmen, people working the floor—that’s maybe a dozen jobs that should have been filled, at one little hotel on one day in one town. Everyone’s keeping costs down, not hiring.
What that hotel looked like is America without its muscle, its efficiency, its old confidence.
* * *
On the plane home I read a piece by Mort Zuckerman, who’s emerged as one of the most persuasive and eloquent critics of the president’s economic policy. The unemployment picture is worse than people understand, he explained in U.S. News & World Report. The jobless rate, officially 7.9%, is almost twice that if you include those who have stopped looking, work part time, or are only “marginally attached” to the workforce. “The labor force participation rate . . . has dropped to the lowest level since 1984,” Mr. Zuckerman noted. “It is harder to find work today than it has been in any previous recession.”
Meanwhile, the president is stuck in his games and his history. He should have seen unemployment entering a crisis stage four years ago, and he did not. At that time I was certain he’d go for public-works projects, which could give training to the young and jobs to the experienced underemployed, would create jobs in the private sector and, in the end, yield up something needed—a bridge, a strengthened power grid. He instead gave his first term to health care. And now ObamaCare is being cited as a reason employers are laying people off and not hiring, according to a report from the Federal Reserve.
What a mess.
Conservative media should stop taunting the president because he spent the past month warning of catastrophe if the sequester kicks in, and the catastrophe hasn’t happened. It hasn’t happened yet. He can make it happen. He runs the federal agencies. He can decide on a steady drip of catastrophe—food inspectors furloughed on the 15th, long lines at the airport on the 18th, sobbing children missing Head Start on the 20th, civilian contractors pointing to a rusting U.S.S. Truman on the 25th.
He can let them happen one after another, like little spring shoots of doom. And it probably won’t look planned and coordinated, it will look spontaneous and inevitable.
And you have to assume that’s the plan, because that’s kind of how he rolls.
But what is the sequester about? At the end of the day it’s about fewer jobs or fewer hours. In the midst of what is already a jobs crisis.
Right now his attention has turned to dinner with Republican senators and meetings with members of both parties on Capitol Hill. He is trying to show, after a hit in the polls, that he can reach out. He’s trying to convince America he’s capable of making a deal.
The new engagement may work if in the past few days the president has changed his political style, approach and assumptions. But people don’t usually change overnight. On the other hand there’s plenty of reason for him to make a cosmetic reach-out in order to show that whatever happens it’s not really his fault, and if the sequester causes pain at least the responsibility is shared. He didn’t stiff the opposition, he treated them to lamb at the Jefferson Hotel.
It is interesting that almost at the same time as the dinner the president’s people once again begun warning of doom. A blast email from Organizing for Action, signed by Stephanie Cutter, used these words: “Devastating,” “obstructionism,” “destructive,” “this is real.” It claimed 100,000 “teaching jobs” will be cut, along with “70,000 spots for preschoolers in Head Start, $43 million for food programs for seniors, $35 million for local fire department,” and nutritional assistance for “over half a million women and their families.” All this because of loopholes “for millionaires and billionaires” who want their “yachts and corporate jets.”
They aren’t dropping the Frighten Everyone strategy.
Their whole approach is still stoke and scare—stoke resentment and scare the vulnerable into pressuring Republicans.
Barack Obama really is a study in contrasts, such as aloof and omnipresent. He’s never fully present and he won’t leave. He speaks constantly, endlessly, but always seems to be withholding his true thoughts and plans. He was the candidate of hope and change, of “Yes, we can,” but the mood of his governance has been dire, full of warnings, threats, cliffs and ceilings, full of words like suffering and punishment and sacrifice.
It’s always the language of zero-sum, of hardship that must be evenly divided, of constriction and accusation.
It’s all so frozen, so stuck. Just when America needs a boost, some faith, a breakthrough.
Mr. Obama is making the same mistake he made four years ago. We are in a jobs crisis and he does not see it. He thinks he’s in a wrestling match about taxing and spending, he thinks he’s in a game with those dread Republicans. But the real question is whether the American people will be able to have jobs.
Once they do, so much will follow—deficits go down a little as fewer need help, revenues go up as more pay taxes. Confidence and trust in the future will grow. People will be happier.
There’s little sense he sees this. Dr. Doom talks about coming disaster when businessmen need the confidence to hire someone. He’s missing the boat on the central crisis of his second term.