Tuesday, September 6, 2011

How to stop a train wreck: what Obama needs to tell the American people

Stimulus worked, but more bold action is needed to fix economy, unemployment in the U.S.

President Barack Obama is set to give a speech on the need for revitalizing our nation's jobs situation. The Nation's John Nichols suggests it could become the most important speech of Obama's presidency. I have to agree with that assessment -- if the president is hoping to turn things around, to throw a Hail Mary to jump-start his re-election campaign, it will all depend on how the people view him on jobs.

So far in his presidency, however, most Americans are unimpressed.

To be sure, Obama has accomplished a lot. When you look at what he's done on paper, it's nothing short of remarkable. Obama faced an economic meltdown the way one might face a train barreling down the tracks toward them. Indeed, when it comes to stopping economic train wrecks, Obama might be the go-to guy to explain how best to do it.

That analogy is no exaggeration: when Obama took office, jobs were being lost at a rate of more than three quarters of a million per month; people were losing retirement plans, not to mention economic security; the auto industry was failing, banks too were failing, and Main Street was disappearing.

So how does one stop a train wreck? You throw everything you possibly can at it. Stimulus projects, tax cuts, aid to states -- Obama was criticized early and often by his GOP rivals over the costs of the stimulus, but few had any alternative plans as to how to fix the mess.

Despite the criticism, despite all that you might have heard, the stimulus worked. Our unemployment rate, which was dipping deeper and deeper as a result of the economic situation Obama's predecessor left us, slowed down, eventually halting and reversing course until it plateaued to where it stands today. Our economy is recovering, albeit at a slower rate than desired. Even Wall Street is doing better than when Bush left office, indicating that Obama's policies haven't hurt (perhaps even helped) the DOW Jones Industrial average gain by 4,000 points during the span of his presidency thus far.

None of this matters, of course, because Americans are still struggling. The basic measurement of how a president performs in office isn't shown in numbers or statistics, but how people are "feeling" during his tenure. And the people aren't "feeling" good right now.

Americans don't FEEL a better market. They don't FEEL a slowdown in layoffs when so many are still without work (though again, through no fault of Obama's policies). What the people feel is an economy still in shambles, still in ruin after the Bush administration left to Obama the task of stopping this train wreck. But Americans can't FEEL that Obama stopped the wreck; they feel only the effects of it, its aftermath and what it left behind.

It isn't enough for Obama to stop an economic train wreck; he has to fix the train itself, get it running right on the tracks again. Only then could Americans truly FEEL any accomplishment by Obama, even though he's already accomplished a great deal through the emergency policies his administration has enacted.

Obama faces several challenges -- along with this economic disaster, he also is having trouble with a dissatisfied base, which I believe is responsible for his dwindling poll numbers. If he can play his cards right, Obama can tackle both of these problems simultaneously, ahead of his 2012 presidential re-election bid.

Whatever he does, placating the middle -- or even the right -- won't help much. Another bold plan of action is needed. What's more, this time, unlike the original stimulus which was largely unpopular, the American people may actually desire it.

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