Recognizing that Americans are worried about the state of the economy, President Obama is offering an olive branch to his critics with a $50 billion infrastructure improvement plan and a deal to make the research and development tax credit permanent. Conservatives are arguing that it's too little too late. The game, though, is far from over for the Democrats.
The Wall Street Journal is the latest news organization to report that voters are mad as hell at Obama, and they're not going to take it any more. According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, voters are split evenly over the question over which party should control Congress with 43% favoring Democrats and 43% Republicans. "But among those who appear most likely to vote, based on their level of interest in the campaign and their history of voting, the Republicans own a dramatic 49% to 40% advantage," the newspaper says.
These results underscore how angry voters are over the state of the economy. Obama's message that while things are bad now, they would have been much worse were it not for the federal bailouts and stimulus spending -- a view backed by many economists -- is not being received. It's sort of like telling someone who broke their leg in a car accident that they should be thankful they aren't in a coma. Still, the level of pessimism in the country is unprecedented.
"Like a terrible remake of Groundhog Day, the White House has unveiled yet another so-called stimulus scheme. Actually, they have two new proposals to buy votes with our money," writes Daniel J. Mitchell of the Libertarian Cato Institute on the think tank's blog. "... all of these proposals suffer from the same flaw in that they assume growth is sluggish because government is not big enough and not intervening enough... The best that can be said about the new White House proposals is that they're probably not as poorly designed as previous stimulus schemes."
Business-Friendly, Jobs-Creating Policies
Infrastructure programs are nothing new. They were part of Obama's $787 billion stimulus plan, which critics say has not done enough to stimulate the economy. But there is evidence that they are working, including last week's jobs report, which showed that 67,000 private sector positions were added in July. The figure was tepid, but better than expected. These improvements are happening -- they're just happening too slowly.
For instance, the president's plan to rebuild 150,000 miles of roadways, 4,000 miles of rail, an 150 miles of runways will add jobs. Many of those who benefit may be union workers who usually back Democrats. And that infrastructure work is also sorely needed. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimated last year it would take $2.2 trillion spent over five years to fix the nation's crumbling infrastructure.
"We applaud [President Obama] for taking a leadership position, and we encourage Congress to work with the administration on this critical national issue," says ASCE Executive Director Patrick Natale. "We also look forward to learning more about the details of the plan, in particular, whether or not it will be paid for by the users, as has successfully been done since the beginning of the interstate system in the 1950s."
The R&D tax credit was been backed by both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush during their administrations. About the only way that Obama could get more widespread business support for a proposal would be to back the extension of the Bush tax cuts, which he has criticized as being fiscally irresponsible.
Don't Count Out the Democrats Yet
To be sure, the Democrats are in trouble. The New York Times notes that the party is performing political "triage" and is prepared to let veteran lawmakers sink and focus its attention on winnable races. That strategy is as understandable as it is desperate. Obama's job approval rating is near a 52-week low, and poll after poll shows that Republicans are far more energized about voting than Democrats. But there are nearly two months until the midterm elections, and plenty could go wrong -- or right -- for either party by then.
Obama and the Democrats can take solace in a few things. First, the party in power almost always does poorly in midterm elections. Second, pollsters occasionally blow it because voters can and often do change their minds. They failed to capture the support that controversial politicians such as Alabama Gov. George Wallace or Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo enjoyed, either because they didn't ask the right questions or because survey respondents misled them.
Third, the media sometimes makes sweeping generalizations when it shouldn't. Consider that in February 2004, USA Today reported that "Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry would defeat President Bush if the election were held today, according to a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll that shows serious vulnerabilities for the president." Remember that Hillary Clinton was seen as the "front runner" early in the 2008 race. More recently, in Florida, Rick Scott upset favored Bill McCollum to win the Republican nomination for governor, though pollsters predicted otherwise. Polls in Alaska gave incumbent Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, as much as a 30 point lead over Tea Party favorite Joe Miller in the GOP primary. Miller, who had the backing of Sarah Palin, eked out a victory nonetheless.
Finally, there is some evidence that the Tea Party movement may drive some moderate voters back to the Democrats or keep them away from the voting booth altogether. Meanwhile, Republicans are starting to bicker among themselves. Businesses are unlikely going to abandon the Democrats financially even if the GOP makes gains. The prognosis, though, is bad for Democrats in November. Blaming the Bush administration for the state of the economy -- even though it may be accurate -- just isn't going to cut it any more.
Voters are a fickle lot. Much like toddlers, they want what they want when they want it.
But for Obama, there is an upside to the GOP's probable victory: It would give him the convenient villain of a "do nothing Congress" to blame when things go wrong, which they most certainly will. It might not be ideal, but it worked for Harry Truman.
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