Ask Obama This: Where’s your short-term jobs plan?

A missed chance at the debate creates an important opportunity for reporters on the trail

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.

After Romney laid out his own five-point plan, Obama countered with this:

Well, let me talk specifically about what I think we need to do. First, we’ve got to improve our education system and we’ve made enormous progress drawing on ideas both from Democrats and Republicans that are already starting to show gains in some of the toughest to deal with schools. We’ve got a program called Race to the Top that has prompted reforms in 46 states around the country, raising standards, improving how we train teachers.

So now I want to hire another 100,000 new math and science teachers, and create 2 million more slots in our community colleges so that people can get trained for the jobs that are out there right now. And I want to make sure that we keep tuition low for our young people.

When it comes to our tax code, Governor Romney and I both agree that our corporate tax rate is too high, so I want to lower it, particularly for manufacturing, taking it down to 25 percent. But I also want to close those loopholes that are giving incentives for companies that are shipping jobs overseas. I want to provide tax breaks for companies that are investing here in the United States.

On energy, Governor Romney and I, we both agree that we’ve got to boost American energy production, and oil and natural gas production are higher than they’ve been in years. But I also believe that we’ve got to look at the energy sources of the future, like wind and solar and biofuels, and make those investments.

He returned to the theme of education as an avenue to job-creation a bit later:

When it comes to community colleges, we are seeing great work done out there all over the country because we have the opportunity to train people for jobs that exist right now. And one of the things I suspect Governor Romney and I probably agree on is getting businesses to work with community colleges so that they’re setting up their training programs… where they’re partnering so that they’re designing training programs. And people who are going through them know that there’s a job waiting for them if they complete it. That makes a big difference, but that requires some federal support.

This is all consistent with the “win the future” message Obama has been leaning on for a couple years now: invest in education and infrastructure, pursue an “all of the above” energy strategy, work to bring down the deficit, share the costs fairly. It’s a perfectly respectable entry in the “clash of philosophies” that the campaigns apparently want to engage in when they decide to be high-minded—Obama called the difference between his and Romney’s long-term budget visions “one of the central questions of this campaign”—and that much of the press is happy to write about. But, as Barro’s pithy headline put it, this is “substance-free substance”—the big stuff, like education reform and hiring more teachers, is simply not responsive to the pressing short-term crisis of joblessness, and the more targeted ideas, like partnerships between businesses and community colleges, are simply too small.

This shift in Obama’s language isn’t a new development, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. At least as far back as July 2011 left-leaning economics writers were noting the president’s abandonment of Keynesian arguments. And some strong recent reporting, like this New York Times article by David Leonhardt, explores the roots of the Obama administration’s too-timid response to the jobs crisis.

But there’s no reason for mainstream reporters to leave this as a topic for the partisan or ideological press, and no reason to look only to the past. And, whatever Obama may wish to declare as the central question of this campaign, high unemployment—which depletes household savings, weighs down economy-wide demand, wreaks havoc on personal and family life, stunts the career paths of young people, and exacerbates long-term budget problems—remains the most pressing economic issue we face right now.

And so there’s an important role for reporters—from the moderators of future debates to the traveling campaign press to local journalists along the trail—to play here. The next time you have an opportunity, ask something like this:

Mr. President, I know that Republican opposition in Congress has blocked most of your agenda for the last two years. But I can’t find much in your proposals that would start putting Americans back to work right away, even if they were passed. Where’s your short-term jobs plan?

Paired with appropriate follow-ups and smart writing, this might just serve to highlight the fact that Obama doesn’t have a short-term jobs plan, which would be a useful journalistic service. Or, asked often enough, it might prompt Obama to come up with a plan and start talking about it, which would be even better.

Over the next few days Obama is scheduled to have public events in a pair of key swing states, Virginia and Ohio. Reporters will no doubt be on hand. Who will be the first to ask?

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.