The U.S. economic “recovery” has not only stalled; it has been undermined—by a persistent decline in the financial well-being of most Americans. Last month, the U.S. Census Bureau documented another decline in the nation’s median income. It also found that more Americans are living in poverty (46.2 million) than in any year during the last five decades. Some 14 million Americans are out of work. Nearly 50 million Americans currently have no health insurance. This year, as last, banks will foreclose on more than a million homes, causing Americans to lose what traditionally has been their single greatest asset.
One remedy for most of these problems is clear: Put more Americans back to work at a living wage. Few adults can climb out of poverty or pay off a mortgage without a job, and jobs are scarce. There are four job seekers for every job available, a situation that is expected to worsen over the next few months when several corporations and many state and local governments lay off hundreds of thousands of workers. Soon the veterans will come home; they will need jobs too.
Meanwhile, a polarized, politicized and paralyzed Congress has been fiddling while America burns. Last year Congress let itself be distracted by a preoccupation with the debt ceiling, a long-term issue, when it ought to have united behind a plan to create jobs—a national emergency. One wag expressed appropriate urgency when he advised the Federal Reserve to act “as if its hair were on fire.” His advice applies to the president, Congress and business leaders, too. Tough economic times require urgent remedies and strong leadership.
With his American Jobs Act, President Obama has focused squarely on job creation. A conservative reading of several economic forecasts shows that implementation of his bill could add more than a million new jobs in 2012, cut unemployment by 1 percent and increase economic growth by at least 1 percent. These are modest but immediate gains, well worth the $447 billion cost. To garner public support, the president is taking his bill directly “to the American people,” a strategy raised to an art form by Ronald Reagan.
According to polls, a majority support the plan’s basic approach. They rank job creation as their top priority, overwhelmingly approve of spending on infrastructure and education, and support federal tax increases on the highest earners. These are all included in Mr. Obama’s bill, so it ought to be wildly popular. But so far only half of those polled about his proposal express confidence in the plan. Some object that the jobs bill offers too little too late and that Congress is unlikely to pass the measure. That is why the president must make a case for urgency—people need work now—and not wait until after the next election or inauguration. The former is governing, the latter the worst sort of politics. It is dereliction of duty for any elected official to put his or her own political future or that of a party above the suffering of millions of Americans.
Mr. Obama’s direct communication with the people ought to serve as an important civic reminder that in a democracy the people either exercise or abdicate real power. They demand relief and shape the plan or suffer the consequences. In their multiple roles not only as individuals but as organized workers, civic and business leaders, shareholders and members of clubs, boards and other voluntary associations, the people can actively suggest and promote remedies on behalf of the common good. The Tea Party and MoveOn exemplify the force of citizen action at different ends of the political spectrum. Encouraging ordinary Americans, who tend not to be extremists, to become more politically engaged could help move the country onto the right track.
The president is gambling on that. He appears to think that if he clarifies his own direction for the country, explains what he is prepared to do about jobs, homes, taxes and the economy, and how he intends to pay for his proposals, the public will see him as a moderate leader who has the best interests of the nation at heart. Clarity and moderation could strengthen the democratic process. So could executive strength, which Mr. Obama is showing at the 11th hour by his recent threat to veto any deficit reduction plan that would cut Medicare funding but fail to include tax increases on the nation’s wealthiest. According to polls, the public also supports this mix of cuts and raised revenues.
Short-term job creation is one part of a broader vision for the nation’s future. When coupled with fairer taxation, mortgage debt relief and judicious cuts to reduce the deficit, it could help build a solid basis for growth and restore public confidence. Ultimately, however, the country needs to develop a spirit of unity, exemplified by leaders who will work together to solve grave national problems. For now, the president is right to promote jobs. Let the people say Amen.