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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Obama Needs to Fight for Jobs

I'm running a bit late so I don't have time to say as much as I'd like about this, but I don't like this advice at all (I've advocated, for example, proposing job creation policies very publicly, and then forcing Republicans to vote them down):

Obama needs to create jobs, not fight for them, by Ezra Klein: Ron Klain, former chief of staff to both Al Gore and Joe Biden, thinks President Obama needs to make more of a show of fighting for job-creating policies. “The greatest risk to the president will be if the American people believe the administration isn’t trying hard enough to tackle the jobs problem,” he writes. “That is why it is imperative for the administration to do more — proposing new ideas, initiatives and job-creation programs — and without delay. It may not succeed, but it must get ‘caught trying’ to do more to spur job creation.”
This advice appeals to me. It’s what I’d like to see happen. But I also think it’s wrong, and if I were advising President Obama, I’d advise him not to take it.
Let’s agree that what matters isn’t how many jobs you “get caught trying” to create, but how many jobs you actually create. There’s virtually no evidence that if Obama makes more speeches on jobs, his poll numbers will go up or the labor market will improve. There’s lots of evidence that if he passes policies that create more jobs, his poll numbers will go up and the labor market will improve. The question, then, isn’t how Obama can get “caught trying.” It’s how — or whether — he can succeed.
When presidents take a strong stand for or against policies, they polarize the policies. Under unified control of government — particularly under unified control of government with a filibuster-proof majority — that can make the policies easier to pass, as it consolidates party support. Under divided control of government, it makes them harder to pass, as it creates or hardens minority-party opposition.
A lot of observers wondered why the Obama administration didn’t push a payroll-tax cut in the 2010 elections. The reason, insiders said, was simple, if frustrating: If they did that, the Republican Party would publicly oppose it and they wouldn’t be able to pass it after the election. By staying quiet on the payroll-tax cut, they made it possible for Republicans to support it as part of the 2010 tax deal.
Recently, the Obama administration has been pushing an expansion of the payroll-tax cut. They want to extend it to employers, not just employees. But they’ve been more public about it. And sure enough, the GOP is suddenly finding itself opposed to a tax cut on business — man, polarization is a powerful force — and gripped by a sudden and, one imagines, soon-to-be-abandoned belief that tax cuts should be paid for.
All of which suggests that if any further jobs measures are going to pass, they’re going to have to start in backroom negotiations and only go public as part of a deal. Taking them public first in the hopes that you can then get them as part of backroom negotiations won’t work. So though I agree with Klain that the right political move for Obama is to push harder on jobs, if I were advising the president, I’d tell him to keep any policies that his legislative team thinks could actually pass out of his speeches. Because the right politics, in the end, won’t do him much good in November. The right jobs numbers will.

Some very quick thoughts:

1. This is not a one-shot game. You have to make the Republicans pay in terms of eroded public support before they will agree to cooperate at all. Yes, they might walk away, and that might hurt in the short-run, but if they are forced to pay a large cost in terms of public support then next time things will be different. The president in particular has not played a long-run strategy, the Republicans have, and the results reflect this.

2. "Let’s agree that what matters isn’t how many jobs you “get caught trying” to create." Why should I agree to take as given the point being debated here? We haven't been in this situation before, so past evidence isn't all that relevant. When we need jobs as bad as we do right now, making it clear the other side is standing in the way of that goal, and fighting for the policies you'd like to enact has more value than it did in the past. 

3. Yes, it might cause Republicans to leave the negotiating table, but that's where the lack of public rhetoric really hurts. That's where Republicans must be made to pay for their behavior in the eyes of the public. Otherwise they will control the negotiations as they do now. The payroll tax, for example, was not the  first choice of Democrats, it was chosen because of fear Republicans would walk away from any other proposal. Their public rhetoric had already boxed Democrats in and now Democrats are supposed to be afraid of trying to punch through that box in public. To me, this is about leaders and followers, and the administration is not the one leading policy right now.

4. The other side is not shy about going public, and that was also true when they controlled the White House. If this advice is correct, why didn't it hurt Republicans when they were in power?

5. Yes, jobs at election time would be best. But if the other side is pushing policies that work against that goal so that it is unlikely to be attained, I can't see how making that clear to the public would hurt.

[Again, I wrote this in a rush and am out of time. I'm sure I've left things out, the arguments aren't as clean as I'd like, etc., etc. -- mostly just putting this up for comments. Hopefully all of you can take it a bit further.]

    Posted by on Wednesday, June 29, 2011 at 08:46 AM in Economics, Politics | Permalink  Comments (46)


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