Is President Obama long on talk and short on results? This is a question he must answer in the negative in 2010. And the best way for him to do that is to produce tangible accomplishments this year. Part of his challenge is that what appears likely to be his first year's biggest accomplishment -- health care -- may not be what the American public is looking for. It ought to be what it was for Bill Clinton: the economy.%%DynaPub-Enhancement class="enhancement contentType-HTML Content fragmentId-1 payloadId-61603 alignment-right size-small"%%To be fair, Obama has done an excellent job of avoiding making many of the mistakes some of his predecessors made. For example, he hasn't suffered any personal scandals that distracted Clinton from working on his goals. And in health care, he decided not to hatch a complex plan in secret -- as Clinton did. Instead, he let Congress develop its own plan after articulating some general goals. The outcome is likely to be a big step forward -- while leaving more to be done.
Obama has also steered clear of George W. Bush's tendency to "go with his gut." As I posted, Bush's instincts led to all sorts of disastrous decisions -- ignoring urgent warnings about a terrorist attack in August 2001, going to war against Iraq despite no evidence of weapons of mass destruction, etc. Rather than go with his gut, Obama has taken his time to make important decisions with deliberation -- such as his December 2009 choice to add 34,000 troops in Afghanistan.
A Lesson From Bill Clinton
While Obama has shunned such missteps, it's safe to say that he could also learn something from Bill Clinton, who was right to focus on the economy and who presided over the creation of 22.2 million jobs and a $211 billion 2000 budget surplus. Obama appears to have not focused sufficiently on the topic that may matter most -- particularly when it comes to the 2010 elections.
That topic is jobs -- which the Associated Press reports is Americans' number one concern. Yet Friday's report that 85,000 jobs disappeared in December, according to the U.S. Labor Department, was certainly not what America wanted to hear. That statistic -- on top of the 10% unemployment rate and 17.3% underemployment rate -- doesn't bode well for creating the number of jobs needed -- 300,000 a month in a robust economy -- to convince Americans that Obama's policies can get results.
To be fair, Obama has taken steps to try to create jobs. The $787 billion stimulus package has probably helped to keep things from getting worse than they otherwise would have been, although the number of jobs actually saved or created is in dispute, and the price per new job seems high. And Friday's announcement of a clean-jobs initiative could create "tens of thousands of clean-technology jobs," according to AP.
A Mismatch Between Open Jobs and Workers' Skills
Obama needs to focus now on how to close the gap between where we are now and where the economy needs to be in producing hundreds of thousands of new jobs by this fall. And it's not just the number of jobs. There's also a mismatch between job demand and workers' skills. For example, MSNBC reports that of the 85,000 jobs lost in December, 53,000 were in construction. But 22,000 jobs were added in health services, and more jobs were filled in professional sectors such as architecture, engineering and computer services. The jobs that need doing may be misaligned with the skills and interests of people looking for work.
I regret to say that I have no brilliant solutions to this problem, and I'm not sure that the policies currently in place will create the necessary jobs in time. The answer is certainly not the economic situation Obama inherited -- in which the debt grew from $5 trillion to $11.3 trillion; the budget deficit ballooned to over $1 trillion; the dollar lost 48% of its value while commodity prices spiked; jobs were outsourced by U.S. corporations looking to produce at the lowest cost possible; and consumers borrowed to try to make up for declining incomes.
However, I do know one thing that worked under Bill Clinton. He took office in a recession caused by problems with real estate and Wall Street excesses. By reducing the deficit, he helped created a climate that happened to coincide with some serious technological innovation: the emergence of the Internet. The willingness of businesses to invest in the Internet and for investors to provide the capital to fuel the growth of Internet start-ups led to massive job creation.
I remember feeling back in 1994 when I first used a Web browser that something exciting was going on. Netscape's initial public offering ended up setting off a chain reaction of start-ups that fueled tremendous growth in the U.S. and throughout the world. Perhaps Clinton was lucky to have been president while this happened.
Time Is Running Out
It could take a similar stroke of luck for Obama to spring the U.S. from its economic funk.
Americans have short memories. If they find themselves getting snapped up by employers in the hundreds of thousands per month by the time October rolls around, they'll probably conclude that the current balance of power is working for them. If not, Obama will have a political price to pay.
For Obama, Job One Is Job Creation