Obama had taken office at a true populist moment that demanded more than this. People were gagging over their looted 401(k)s and underwater homes, the AIG bonuses, and the bailouts. Howard Dean rage has never been Obama’s style—hope-and-change was an elegant oratorical substitute—and had he given full voice to the public mood, he would have been pilloried as an “angry black man.” But Obama didn’t have to play Huey Long. He could have pursued a sober but determined execution of justice and an explicit, major jobs initiative—of which there have been exactly none, the too-small stimulus included, to the present day.
By failing to address that populist anger, Obama gave his enemies the opening to co-opt it and turn it against him. Which the tea party did, dishonestly but brilliantly, misrepresenting Obama’s health-care-reform crusade as yet another attempt by the elites to screw the taxpayer. (The Democrats haplessly reinforced the charge with marathon behind-the-scenes negotiations with insurance and pharmaceutical-industry operatives.) Once the health-care law was signed, the president still slighted the unemployment crisis. A once-hoped-for WPA-style public-works program, unloved by Geithner, had been downsized in the original stimulus, and now a tardy, halfhearted stab at a $50 billion transportation-infrastructure jobs bill produced a dandy Obama speech but nothing else.
Obama soon retreated into the tea-party mantra of fiscal austerity. Short-term spending cuts when spending is needed to create jobs make no sense economically. But they also make no sense politically. The deficit has never been a top voter priority, no matter how loudly the right claims it is. At Obama’s inaugural, Gallup found that 11 percent of voters ranked unemployment as their top priority while only 2 percent did the deficit. Unemployment has remained a stable public priority over the deficit ever since, usually by at least a 2-to-1 ratio. In a CBS poll immediately after the Democrats’ “shellacking” of last November—a debacle supposedly precipitated by the tea party’s debt jihad—the question “What should Congress concentrate on in January?” yielded 56 percent for “economy/jobs” and 4 percent for “deficit reduction.”
Geithner has pushed deficit reduction as a priority since before the inauguration, the Washington Post recently reported in an article greeted as a smoking gun by liberal bloggers. But Obama is the chief executive. It’s his fault, no one else’s, that he seems diffident about the unemployed. Each time there’s a jolt in the jobless numbers, he and his surrogates compound that profile by farcically reshuffling the same clichés, from “stuck in a ditch” to “headwinds” (first used by Geithner in March 2009—retire it already!) to “bumps in the road.” It’s true the administration has caught few breaks and the headwinds have been strong, but voters have long since tuned out this monotonous apologia. The White House’s repeated argument that the stimulus saved as many as 3 million jobs, accurate though it may be, is another nonstarter when 14 million Americans are looking for work.
In early June, the unemployment rate—7.8 percent when Obama took office and as high as 10.1 percent during his tenure—ticked upward to 9.1 percent. That cued a ubiquitous press refrain that no president since FDR has been reelected with an unemployment rate higher than 7.2 percent (as it stood when Reagan overcame a recession to win in 1984). Later that month, a plurality in a Bloomberg survey said the economy was worse now than when Obama took office.
The ultimate indignity, though, was a Washington Post / ABC News poll showing Obama in a dead heat with Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney! If any belief unites our polarized nation, it’s the conviction that Romney is the most transparent phony in either party, no matter how much he’s now deaccessioning hair products. It’s also been a Beltway truism that a Mormon can’t win the Republican nomination, let alone a Massachusetts governor who devised the prototype for “ObamaCare.” But that political calculus changed overnight. That this poseur could so quickly gain traction, even if evanescently, should alarm Obama.
It was on Monday, June 13, that the new state of play crystallized. That morning, Immelt unveiled his vacuous op-ed and rendezvoused with Obama in Durham, North Carolina, for a double-feature dog-and-pony show: a meeting of the otherwise invisible White House jobs council (only its second to date) and yet another small-bore presidential photo op promoting yet another green-tech employer illustrating the latest dim-wattage administration slogan, “Winning the Future.” Unfortunately for the White House, the Times front page delivered another message above the fold that morning: OBAMA SEEKS TO WIN BACK WALL ST. CASH. Among the objects of Obama’s affection interviewed was an unnamed Democratic financier who found it ironic that “the same president who once criticized bankers as ‘fat cats’ would now invite them to dine at Daniel, where the six-course tasting menu runs to $195 a person.”