Over the final month of the campaign, CJR will run a series of posts under the headline “Ask Obama This” and “Ask Romney This,” suggesting questions that reporters should pose to the presidential candidates. This initial installment focuses on a question that could (and should) be asked of both candidates, but that is particularly pressing for the incumbent.
A mind-boggling amount was written and said about the first debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney this week, and much of it was pretty good. But two short items, one by National Journal’s Jim Tankersley and another by Bloomberg’s Josh Barro, stood out in exposing the fecklessness of both candidates on one of the most pressing issues facing America—and in suggesting a useful course of action for campaign reporters around the country over the next month.
That issue, as Tankersley wrote in a pre-debate post, is the ongoing jobs crisis, and our political leadership’s maddening decision, both in rhetoric and in substance, to stop treating the situation as an emergency. The question Tankersley urged moderator Jim Lehrer to ask Romney and Obama reflects the frustration and urgency journalists should be bringing to this issue—not just “What’s your jobs plan?” but “Why aren’t you seriously trying to solve the jobs crisis?”
You wouldn’t think that, with some 23 million Americans out of work, underemployed, or marginally connected to the labor force, the candidates would have to be prodded on this subject. But with the word “Keynesian” apparently banished from our political vocabulary in the wake of the political fight over the Recovery Act, and the deficit still atop the political agenda, any vision for short-term stimulus and job creation—whether according to left-wing, right-wing, or centrist principles—has been startlingly absent from the campaign’s messages.
It’s been absent from most press coverage, too, which is the problem Tankersley was trying to correct. But, as Barro noted in an important bit of post-debate analysis Thursday morning, Lehrer failed to press for new answers on the economic crisis. (He did devote a chunk of time to the endlessly-hashed-over deficit debate, though.) And fairly incredibly, when Lehrer did ask Romney and Obama to talk about their jobs agendas right at the beginning of the debate, neither even mentioned the looming issues that will likely have the greatest near-term impact on the economy and employment: the fiscal cliff, the ongoing housing crisis, and monetary policy.
Barro might have added—as Slate’s Matthew Yglesias did here—that Obama also declined to talk about his administration’s proposed American Jobs Act, which has been more or less abandoned since it predictably went nowhere in the Republican-controlled House a year ago.
So what did the candidates say about jobs and growth? Romney touted his five-point plan, which is a bit of sloganeering wrapped around Republican economic orthodoxy, equally useful in good times and bad. At one point, ironically, Romney did break from the GOP playbook: when Obama claimed that he supported a big, deficit-financed tax cut—a bit of standard Republican policy that might (however inefficiently) actually help boost employment right now—Romney angrily and repeatedly denied the charge.
Meanwhile, as some observers have noted, Romney’s promise to create 12 million jobs over the next four years is like the rooster taking credit for sunrise, as independent estimates forecast that level of job growth even without extra help from the government. Romney did at least manage to affect some urgency about the unemployment crisis—“we can help,” he said in his opening remarks—but, for the short-term, he didn’t really say how.
But Obama’s statements in particular are worth a closer look, because the comments of the one-time champion of fiscal stimulus underscore just how disconnected political rhetoric about economic growth has become from the current jobs crisis. In reply to Lehrer’s opening invitation to talk about his jobs vision, the president said this, according to CNN’s transcript:
Governor Romney has a perspective that says if we cut taxes, skewed towards the wealthy, and roll back regulations, that we’ll be better off. I’ve got a different view.
I think we’ve got to invest in education and training. I think it’s important for us to develop new sources of energy here in America, that we change our tax code to make sure that we’re helping small businesses and companies that are investing here in the United States, that we take some of the money that we’re saving as we wind down two wars to rebuild America and that we reduce our deficit in a balanced way that allows us to make these critical investments.