Americans: Still Making No Sense on the Economy?

It's Call Americans Stupid Week at your local East coast liberal news outlet. Days after Slate's Jake Weisberg implored us to "blame the childish, ignorant American public" for our political crisis, the New Yorker's James Surowiecki listens to the public's screams and says it's "just not clear that they're making any sense." Is James Surowiecki making any sense?


He is. Weisberg's piece held up individual polls to make Americans look hypocritical, which meant marshaling somewhat unfair evidence (polls are often misleading and limited) in pursuit of a defensible thesis. Surowiecki paints with a fatter brush: "if Democrats pass a stimulus package, they'll be lambasted for increasing the deficit; if they don't pass a stimulus, they'll be attacked for not caring about jobs." Sounds about right.

The central insight here is simple, but also easy to overlook: If unemployment stays around 10 percent all year, Obama and the Democrats should not expect to get the benefit of the doubt on any piece of legislation. Presidents live and die by approval ratings, as John Judis wrote, and approval ratings live and die by employment. Here are Reagan's numbers grafted with unemployment (for more examples, click here):

It's one thing to say: the Senate should pass a jobs bill, and quickly. It's another thing for the Senate to actually pass a jobs bill, even slowly. The people might be confused, but their scatter-shot take on simultaneous job-creation and deficit-reduction is reflected in the world's greatest deliberative body. As I wrote here, every Congressman would acknowledge that we need more jobs, but key senators won't vote for the money to incentivize hiring. Moderate Republicans won't even vote to re-direct money paid back from TARP to send to small businesses. The White House can't spend the deficit up without upsetting moderate Democrats, but Congress won't even vote on a commission to bring the deficit down in the future. If America's economic worldview stinks, it's a fish that's rotting from the head.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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