SYNDICATED COLUMN: What’s the Matter with Obama?

It’s the Not Caring About the Economy, Stupid

As a pundit it’s my job to explain why politicians do the things they do. Every now and then, however, a pol behaves so irrationally that I have to throw up my arms and ask:

What the hell is this guy thinking?

That’s what Obama has me doing. For over two years. Why isn’t he worried about unemployment?

Thomas Frank wondered in “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” why Americans don’t vote their (liberal) self-interest. What I can’t figure out is why President Obama isn’t following his self-interest.

Obama says he wants a second term. I believe him. Every president wants one.

Americans vote their pocketbooks. Not exclusively—they care about a candidate’s values—but no president has ever been reelected with an unemployment rate over 7.2 percent. Right now it’s 9.1 percent. Unless there’s an unexpected reversal, it will still be way high by Election Day 2012.

Economists surveyed by USA Today predict that the jobless rate will be pretty much the same, 8.8 percent, at this time next year. Goldman Sachs is even more pessimistic. They think it will be 9.25 percent by the end of 2012—with a “meaningful downside risk” that it will be even worse.

Polls indicate that economic insecurity, specifically high unemployment, has been the biggest issue on voters’ minds since Obama took over in 2009.

77 percent of Americans tell Gallup the economy is getting worse. That’s up from 62 percent a month ago.

If Obama wants to get reelected he has to do something about jobs. Something BIG. Failing that—and that’s an epic fail—he has to at least be perceived as trying to do something about jobs. But he hasn’t done squat so far. And his job approval rating, now at an all-time low of 39 percent, reflects that.

I don’t like admitting this, but I’m mystified. Why isn’t Obama even trying to look like he cares about the one issue that could make or break his reelection chances?

What’s up? Are he and his advisors morons, or just out of touch? Do they have some secret jobs-related October Surprise that will magically reemploy the 22 percent of Americans who are out of work during the last few weeks of the election? Are they the Chicago Black Sox of politics, determined to throw the race to the Republicans? Psychologist Drew Westen can’t figure it out either, wondering aloud if Obama is sick in the head.

Some ask: Is Obama a Republican?

“Government doesn’t create jobs,” tweeted GOP candidate Herman Cain recently. “Businesses create jobs. Government needs to get out of the way.” Obama and his fellow fake Democrats never challenge this right-wing framing.

Maybe they believe it. “The White House doesn’t create jobs,” Obama press secretary Jay Carney said August 5th.

But the meme is wrong. In the real world where flesh-and-blood American workers have been living since 2000, businesses haven’t created any jobs. Instead, they’ve eliminated millions of them. And shipped millions more overseas.

Those job-killing trends—eliminating workers, increased automation and globalization—won’t change soon. “Workers are getting more expensive while equipment is getting cheaper, and the combination is encouraging companies to spend on machines rather than people,” Catherine Rampell recently reported for The New York Times.

There’s also a death-spiral effect. Elena Semuels of The Los Angeles Times sums it up: “Economists say the nation is stuck in a Catch-22 scenario: The economy won’t improve until businesses hire, but many won’t hire without consumer demand, which is weak because of the current state of the job market and concerns about the future.”

“Everyone says, ‘How can we have a recovery without jobs?’ [But] until I start seeing my competitors add jobs, I’m not going to do it,” Loren Carlson of the CEO Roundtable tells MSNBC.

Recovery won’t come from business. The scope of the post-2008 meltdown is too vast.

On the other hand, government can and does create jobs. Indirectly, it creates the veneer of law and order that permits commerce. Government can also employ people directly.

FDR orchestrated the direct hiring of 9 million Americans as government employees for the WPA and other programs. The federal government even hired writers and artists. Adjusted for population growth, that’s the same as 22 million people today. Obama could have done something like that in early 2009.

Too late now, of course. Obama’s inaction on the economy prompted a Republican sweep in the 2010 midterms. They won’t go along.

Keynes 101: the time for austerity is during a boom, when you can afford to save up for a rainy day. Governments are supposed to spend their way out of a recession or depression. The GOP-conceived debt ceiling deal is 200-proof insanity.

“An anti-Keynesian, budget-balancing immediacy imparts a constrictive noose around whatever demand remains alive and kicking,” wrote Bill Gross of the bond-trading firm Pimco in The Washington Post. “Washington hassles over debt ceilings instead of job creation in the mistaken belief that a balanced budget will produce a balanced economy. It will not.”

Rather than criticize this austerity lunacy, Obama is still going along. “Mr. Obama’s senior adviser, David Plouffe, and his chief of staff, William M. Daley, want him to maintain a pragmatic strategy of appealing to independent voters by advocating ideas that can pass Congress, even if they may not have much economic impact,” reports the New York Times.

“We’re at a loss to figure out a way to articulate the argument in a way that doesn’t get us pegged as tax-and-spenders,” admits a Democratic Congressional advisor. For God’s sake, grow a pair! Make your case to the public.

Anything that doesn’t have “much economic impact” isn’t going to have much electoral impact either. And neither are token gestures like a three-day bus tour, revamping the patent process, or another overhyped speech. (Scheduled for September. Because, why rush?)

As you read this Obama is off to Martha’s Vineyard, hanging out with millionaires.

Really—what’s going on? Can Obama really be that stupid? Can anyone?

(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is



  • What’s going on? It’s really very simple.

    The 2010 midterm results sent the message that the American public WANTED austerity. “If the American public didn’t want austerity, they would never have elected so many people who are for policies that promote it,” is the thinking- guaranteed.

    It’s easy to say you’re for liberal policies, but actions speak louder than words, and if you don’t elect the people who have a shot at getting liberal policies through, well, that shows what you REALLY want-especially to politicians. All polls other than the one on Election Day are meaningless noise.

    This is, and was, completely predictable once you start thinking about how the system actually works, instead of basing your actions on how you think the system should work. That’s why I was telling people before the midterms “Hold it together. I don’t care how disappointed you are in the Democrats, the message your protests ARE sending is not the message you think. All you have to do is keep the House Democratic, and you’ll start us down the path to getting everything on your wish list.”

    I wasn’t listened to, and we’ve got austerity, and a hell of a mess. I predicted every single thing that happened from the tax cut extension to the budget fight, and I did it the morning after we lost the House.

    So here’s my prediction for ’12: Anything other than re-electing Obama, keeping the Senate, and sweeping the Democrats to massive electoral victories in the House is going to send the message “We, the American Public, want austerity ON STEROIDS.”

    Don’t like austerity? Want a different result? Send a different message.

    It really is just that simple.

  • The problem is that the Democrats under Obama’s “leadership” aren’t a party of liberals. We’ve got two right-wing parties in the United States (the far right and the near right?) and an electoral system which makes it very difficult if not impossible to break that duopoly. I still vote for Democrats who act like liberals, but I refuse to lick the crumbs from some politician’s table just because he or she has a D next to their name. In 2010 I voted for one Democrat, wrote in “None of the Above” and voted for a Green Party member. None of these votes was for “austerity.”

  • Sorry, no matter what you thought those votes were for, what they actually were for was austerity.

    Protest votes invariably send the wrong message.

  • “but no president has ever been reelected with an unemployment rate over 7.2 percent”

    Wrong. FDR was, because he was perceived as being better than the Republicans, who (quite justly) got all the blame for the 25% official unemployment of the Depression (NB: FDR’s WPA workers were counted as officially unemployed, so that 25% was really only 22%).

    Prof. Krugman says it’s the direction. Reagan had a much higher unemployment rate than Carter, but as the ’80 election approached, unemployment was rising; as the ’84 election approached, it was falling, so Reagan won in ’80 and ’84.

    So, by making things as bad as possible NOW, Obama must be planning to make it as easy as possible to show improvement in the quarter before the election.

    Plus, of course, Obama has the advantage that all the Republicans currently running are so far out in right field that it’s hard to see them winning again like they did in ’10.

  • Why vote for strained, piecemeal stupid when you’ve smooth, natural, career stupid as the other choice?

  • >>>This is, and was, completely predictable once you start thinking about how the system actually works, instead of basing your actions on how you think the system should work.>>>

    What you don’t seem to understand is that some systems are so irredeemably bad that they need to be either abolished or at least radically restructured. Do you really think that if Martin Luther King Jr. had based his actions on “how the system actually works” he would have eliminated segregation in the South? No. He had to arrange massive civil disobedience.

    And as far as “how the system actually works”? In between 2009-2010, we had a Democratic White House and a Democratic Congress. Those of us who voted Democratic should have at least gotten *some* of what we wanted in that time period. And the major thing we wanted was jobs, and lots of them. Millions of them. Hell, Obama could have declared a moratorium on housing forclosures, and he didn’t. He could do that NOW, if wanted to. But he choses not to.

    So I’m going to ask you a question, Whimsical: why hasn’t Obama declared a moratorium on housing forclosures in the nearly three years he’s been president? And don’t give me that “Republican obstruction” excuse. It won’t wash.

  • >>Those of us who voted Democratic should have at least gotten *some* of what we wanted in that time period.

    You did. Sadly, my 6 year old niece has more patience and frustration tolerance than those on the left, not to mention understands better how the system actually works. You threw a tantrum in ’10 because you didn’t get enough of what you wanted, quickly enough (Instead of rewarding the Democrats for the little victories they achieved so they could get bigger ones) and wound up sending the message that the American people wanted austerity. Good job!

    >>So I’m going to ask you a question, Whimsical: why hasn’t Obama declared a moratorium on housing forclosures in the nearly three years he’s been president? And don’t give me that “Republican obstruction” excuse. It won’t wash.

    For the first two years, it was because such an action would’ve led to his immediate impeachment, sucking up all the oxygen in the room and any political capital he had. Obama preferred to use his capital to get multiple things done.

    After the midterms, of course, the American people had sent the message that they weren’t interested in any such action; and of course, impeachment was more likely, not less.

    Oh, and Susan? Reality is what it is, and scoffs at your attempts to declare what “wont wash”. That’s about as useful as pulling a $1 dollar bill out of your pocket, trying to buy something with it and telling the clerk “This is a $100 bill, and attempts to tell me otherwise won’t wash”. Pointless.

  • To Whimsical:

    You claim Obama, in his first two years, could not risk declaring a moratorium on foreclosures “because such an action would’ve led to his immediate impeachment … ”

    Are you aware that
    a) only the House can impeach, and
    b) the House, in those two years (111th Congress), the Democrats had a House majority of 56% (50-seats).

    I can go on for some time listing the faults of the Democrats in the House (and senate) but their likelihood of impeaching a Democratic president is NOT on of them.

    “Whimsical” indeed. (ESPECIALLY the “they voted for austerity part!!!”)

  • Correction:

    The Democratic majority in the House in the US 111th Congress (Jan 2009 – Jan 2011) was 59% and 75 seats.

  • @falco

    I am well aware of those facts. Are you aware that
    a) The Blue Dog coalition, knowing impeachment would fail in the Senate, would most likely have gone along with impeachment measures in order to protest what they would’ve felt was govermenetal overeach?
    b) Impeachment would not have to have succeeded in order to suck all the oxygen out of the room and make Obama waste political capital?

    Had Obama declared a moratorium, impeachment proceedings would’ve begun, guaranteed, and NOTHING at all would’ve been accomplished in the first two years of his presidency (Insert standard far left lame, false comeback of “That would’ve been better than what we got. Derp.” here).

  • To Whimsical:

    It IS pure whimsy to go on incessantly about a completely hypothetical example of “suck(ing) all the oxygen out of the room and mak(ing) Obama waste political capital?”

    It is simple, if unfortunate, to correctly apply these colorful political images to actual, recent occurrences.

    Obama was able, singlehandedly, to very effectively suck oxygen and squander political capital with his “signature” health insurance bill. It was a pure gift to the already bloated insurance industry. It virtually prevented consideration of any other legislation in the year+ it took to get passed. It’s most obviously beneficial (hence political capital enhancing) features won’t come into effect until two years after he may have lost re-election. It totally alienated his base for omitting the “public option” he promised, especially as it became clear that provision was negotiated away immediately to the insurance goons behind closed doors. (Was there some promise about televising these negotiations or was that in alternate universe 43b?) It has NO provisions for keeping costs under control. It is being battered in federal court AND it may well be declared unconstitutional by SCOTUS, Inc. before the 2012 election.

    Of course, any “good news” of a ruling of constitutionality by SCOTUS, Inc. would only affirm that the bill is a corporate sell out.

    I guess whimsy is a defense mechanism against the truth?

  • >>Those of us who voted Democratic should have at least gotten *some* of what we wanted in that time period.

    You did.>>>

    Whimsical, would you care to list all of these great accomplishments? Oh, on second thought, don’t bother. I wouldn’t want you to strain yourself.

    >>>For the first two years, it was because such an action would’ve led to his immediate impeachment, sucking up all the oxygen in the room and any political capital he had.>>>

    Laughin’ my ass off. Impeachment for declaring a moratorium on housing foreclosures? They would not have dared. Anybody who started impeachment proceedings on Obama for *that* reason would have lost *their* political capital. If they had actually started impeachment proceedings, it would have been a boon to Obama and a feather in his cap.

  • “Whimsical, would you care to list all of these great accomplishments?”

    Seriously. Please do. I’ve been meaning to ask my Obama-supporting friends to give me a list of things that he’s accomplished. I’d like to compare this hypothetical list to my own very long list which includes many disappointments and outrages.

    (Hint: don’t mention health-care “reform,” because it is at best a win-lose accomplishment. I’m inclined to view it very negatively because it entrenches the power of the industry to an even greater degree and makes the serious reform needed even harder to foresee…)

    • There are some hilarious lists of Obama “accomplishments” floating around online. They’re so trivial and sub-tentative that you really have to wonder if they were authored by a Republican to piss off lefties.

  • I’ve seen a few of these lists too. The the ones I saw were older, and a lot of the things claimed as “accomplishments” in 2009 have been complete nullified or reversed since the lists’ publication.

    I’m serious. I’d like to see a current up-to-date list of Obama’s accomplishments and compare it to the negative things he’s done. For example, I have a friend who works at the EPA who says Obama has been a big improvement over Bush on environmental protection–though I don’t know if this is saying much…

  • Oooh, let’s hear it on those great Obama accomplishments. Whimsical, are you still there?

    Folks, the guy is in a very deep hole of denial, and still digging like mad.

  • (Stupid spotty internet ate my first attempt..grrr)

    People, people, people- while I’m flattered that I take up so much real estate in your head that you miss me when I’m gone for a couple of days, I do have a life outside of trying to get you folks to see reason and stop making mistakes that put Republicans into positions where they can severely damage the country.

    >>I guess whimsy is a defense mechanism against the truth?

    I don’t know. Is throwing up straw men a defense against not having a comeback to the actual point under discussion?

    I mean seriously, if you want to discuss the healthcare bill, I’ll be happy to discuss it; but to bring it up in response to a question about a forclosure moratorium just highlights the bankruptcy (no pun intended) of your answer.

    Of course, you learned from the best, as you’ll see in a moment.

    >>Whimsical, would you care to list all of these great accomplishments?

    Ah Susan, what would a comment thread be without your willful misunderstanding of my point and attempts at straw man deflection…

    See, I very specifically did not make the claim there were “great accomplishments”. I did so because the system is DESIGNED to prevent “great accomplishments” in such a microscopic time span (which, historically speaking, 2 years is). It’s a feature, not a bug.

    I chose the phrase “little victories” for a reason. You get a little victory, you reward the people who got it for you with more power, and you repeat this cycle until you EVENTUALLY get what you want. That’s how the system WORKS.

    The right apparently GETS this. Its taken them 40 years of little victory after little victory to bring the system to the crisis point we’re currently at. Sadly, the far left seems to be suffering from the delusion that 40 years of little victories of the right were going to be reversed in two years. Not only was that never going to happen, it wasn’t even possible- no matter who was in the Oval Office. The system doesn’t WORK that way.

    But the left having no patience, and no frustration tolerance threw a tantrum because they didn’t get enough of what they wanted, fast enough (instead of being smart and rewarding the Democrats for what they did get, so they could get more), and as a result got further away from their goals; worse- they’re considering doubling down on the tantrum in ’12, which will put the achievement of the goals they claim to want even further off into the future.

    All they had to do is play it smart, and we’d be on the road to the eventual realization of their every dream. But they were unwilling to do even that much. As I said, my neice grasps the concept of working towards a goal and delayed gratification better than anyone I’ve talked to on the far left- and she’s 6!

    >>Impeachment for declaring a moratorium on housing foreclosures? They would not have dared.

    Laughing MY ass off at the idea that anyone who has been paying even the SLIGHTEST bit of attention would think there was ANYTHING the Republicans wouldn’t dare to keep the economy in the tank. Impeachment proceedings would’ve failed, no question, but while they were ongoing, Obama wouldn’t have been able to get the stimulus through, and the economy would’ve tanked even harder than it did. That alone guarantees the Republicans would’ve tried it.

    The far left stubbornly clings to their failed strategy of the past 30 years; the same strategy that has driven the party (and by extension the country) so far right that we are on the edge of a cliff; the same strategy that has rendered them increasingly irrelevant to the political process; I offer them a path back to relevancy and making forward movement on the goals they claim to want, and I’M the one in a deep hole of denial!?! I don’t think so, but thanks for the laugh, kid.

    Seriously, if thirty-plus years of failure aren’t enough to crack the denial of the far left and convince them to change their strategy, you’ve got to seriously wonder what itll take. Of course that’s not counting the ones that are rooting for a system collapse- but boy are they going to get an ugly surprise when and if their wish comes true.

    Oh, and since evryone’s been asking:–A-comprehensive-list-of-Obama’s-Accomplishments?via=search

    Despite the title, it’s far from comprehensive. But it’s a fine list of little victories (yes grouchy, including health care) and for those of us who understand how the system works, more than enough justification for having some patience and giving the Democrats more power. After all they accomplished between 85%-90% of what was possible to be accomplished in their first two years, given the circumstances.

    • If the system is designed to preclude big accomplishments in only two years, how do you explain Bush? Or Reagan? They radically revamped the system in their first two years.

    • Just read the Daily Kos list.

      It’s incredible. The stuff they list is ANTI-progressive. It’s pro-business.

      How can tax cuts for business, for example, be something that liberals should be excited about?

      The gall of the faux left is limitless. They’re more shameless than Bachmann.

  • @Ted

    Bush built on the years of little victories the right had since Reagan of course. and I don’t believe Reagan did anything all that radical in the first two years of his presidency. Now over eight years he was fairly radical, but that was because he had a base that understood how to capitalize on little victories, not one that abandoned him for not being victorius enough.

    You’re also being extremely disingenuous regarding the DK article. All the tax breaks for business mentioned in it are for things like “hybrid cars” and “public transport”- things liberals WERE excited about last I checked.

    It is hardly the “Here, have a bunch of money for nothing” that you’re making it out to be.

    Lastly, who are you to decide whos true left and whose faux? I’ve said you’re ineffective and far more likely to get the complete opposite of what you want than anything else, but I’ve never implied you weren’t a lefty.

    • It might be fun to go down that list in a biog post to explain why 95% of those points are not progressive or liberal but in fact pro-Republican, but I have too many deadlines for paying customers and not enough time. Suffice it to say, if you do go down the list, there is basically nothing for a leftie to sink her teeth into.

      Where is the help for the jobless? The prosecutions of the torturers and the banksters? The nationalizations of banks found guilty of criminality? Where is the big increase in the minimum wage? Where is the withdrawal from Iraq? Where is the WPA-scale economic stimulus?

      Businesses don’t deserve ANY tax breaks these days. People need tax breaks.

      Who am I to decide who’s real and faux left? I’m Ted Fucking Rall LOL. Seriously, like any other commentator, I float my opinions and people buy them or they don’t. I’d like to think I’ve built up some credibility over the years with people who follow my judgment calls, but ultimately that’s for others–and history–to decide.

  • The list is full of bullshit. Take number 18, for example: “Sign a ‘universal’ health care bill.” Whoever wrote this is full of shit, and they want us to know it. Putting scare quotes around the word “universal” is their way of winking at us.

    Seriously, some of these are just bad ideas, like “Appoint at least one Republican to the cabinet.” Others might appear to be progressive, but if you’ve been following policy closely you’ll realize that more often than not Obama takes one step forward (or sideways) and two steps back.

    And then there are just flat out lies like “Seek verifiable reductions in nuclear stockpiles.” Obama is doing the opposite, trying to push through a “nuclear weapons renaissance.”

    But my very favorite is “Get his daughters a puppy.”

    Did somebody say the word disingenuous?

  • Just because the left is in denial does not mean you are not, Whimsical. So keep on cackling and voting for the Republicrats. Real useful. Oh yeah, and lean into that shovel, hard. Maybe you’ll end up in Mongolia next year.

  • @TED

    >>Where is the help for the jobless? The prosecutions of the torturers and the banksters? The nationalizations of banks found guilty of criminality? Where is the big increase in the minimum wage? Where is the withdrawal from Iraq? Where is the WPA-scale economic stimulus?

    The jobless got as much help as was possible, and the military sabotaged the Iraq withdrawal. The rest of your list is impossible, and would not be possible regardless of who was in the Oval Office. You can’t punish Obama and the Democrats for failing to do the impossible. Well, I suppose you can, but it’d be bad strategy and wouldn’t make much sense- you’d only end up punishing yourselves and the country. Oh wait, that’s been the left’s strategy for the past 30+ years, I forgot.

    @grouchy- I said the list contains some fine examples of little victories, and it does. I didn’t say everything on it was relevant, nor did I say it was complete. Hardly disingenuous.

    @vera- Good, you admit the left is in denial. That’s a good first baby step towards the truth. Keep going, you’ll get there eventually.

  • Little victories?

    Let me repeat: more often than not Obama takes one step forward (or sideways) and two steps back.

  • Or let’s try this, Whimsical. You pick 3 off this list. The 3 that you think are the most substantial. I’ll give those my attention.

    If these 3 manage to stand as real “accomplishments,” we’ll weigh them against Obama’s 3 greatest stabs in the back.

  • @grouchy-

    Define your terms. If you’re at all like Ted, your definition of “real accomplishment” would be something that given the circumstances, not a person on the planet could’ve achieved.

    I’m a little more pragmatic then that. Given the circumstances, Obama and the Democrats accomplished between 85 and 90 percent of what was possible to be achieved in the first two years of his term.

    Real accomplishments menas to me that Obama and the Democrats have done the best that could be done on any given issue.

    But, if we can agree on the terms, I’ll take your challenge, sure.

    • I strongly disagree that Obama did what was politically possible. He could have done more. A lot more. He chose not to, even when he would have gained in the polls as a result.

      In fact, he would be much more popular now if he had governed as a progressive.

  • I guess we should move this discussion to Ted’s new post.