Obama's Quest for Jobs: The Pitfalls and Prospects

What you should take away from The New York Times' dissection of White House economic policy

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In a lengthy New York Times magazine story, Peter Baker explains how President Obama's economic team plans to tackle 9.4 percent unemployment and a $1.3 trillion federal budget deficit, as the economy--and particularly jobs--increasingly defines Obama's presidency and affects his re-election prospects:

During the first half of his term, [Obama] used the tools of government to shape the nation's economy more aggressively than any president in 75 years. As the national debt rises and Republicans assume more power on Capitol Hill, it won’t be easy finding ways to juice the economy that are exciting, effective and politically viable ... Obama's challenge may be more fundamental even than reducing unemployment and winning re-election; he wants to prove that liberal economic theory can be adapted to the 21st century.

Baker articulates Obama's approach to economic policy ("as much improvisational as ideological, a blend of Keynesian spending, business tax breaks, bank and auto bailouts, tax cuts for workers"), investigates whether Obamanomics has succeeded, and probes the philosophical and personal disputes that plagued Obama's outgoing economic team. He sheds light on the new economic team coalescing around Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Bill Clinton-era officials like Chief of Staff Bill Daley.

The piece peddles heavily in policy and insider gossip, which raises the question: if you live outside Washington, DC, or you're the rare breed of Beltway-based but not politics-obsessed, why should you care what Baker has to say?

  • What He Omits Is As Important As What He Says, observes Marcy Wheeler at Emptywheel: Baker's supposedly "definitive article" doesn't once mention "that part of the economy, housing, that has traditionally led recoveries but that, partly because of the obstinance of Obama's economic team, continues to drag down the recovery."
  • Baker Epitomizes the Beltway Bubble, charges Jason Linkins at The Huffington Post. Baker relies on insider sources who are clueless about how Americans outside DC are experiencing the recession, Linkins says:

Online, the piece comes packaged with a ruin-porn slideshow of actual people from Rockford, Ill., in a cheap nod to the fact that a world exists outside of the Beltway. But Baker's digest is exclusive in its insularity: you get rolodex dial-ups from Alan Binder and Douglas Holtz-Eakin, by-the-numbers defenses of the administration from Christina Romer and Tim Geithner, and a re-accounting of the job-switch shuffle through the revolving door. We visit Geithner in his "high-ceilinged office" at Treasury and catch up with a freshly-tanned Larry Summers at a "restaurant in suburban Boston." On the search for answers, Baker wanders as far as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce building, where he stops to ponder the "J-O-B-S" banner hanging from its edifice. There, special meanings are divined.

  • No, He Asks a Critical But Uncomfortable Question, counters Felix Salmon at Reuters. Baker poses a question that should matter to all of us, Salmon says: is Obama's economic team--and particularly Summers, Obama's former economic adviser--partially responsible for the country's economic troubles? The public "elected a pro-labor, pro-union president," Salmon explains, "and got from him an economic policy which recapitalized banks and did wonders for the stock market, but which has massively underperformed on the job and foreclosure fronts. The buck stops with the president."
  • Obama Comes Off Poorly, claims Ezra Klein at The Washington Post. Obama shouldn't leave policy up to his economic advisers, Klein says: "If the president wants to go bold on job creation, he needs to go bold on job creation. The votes may not be there now, but perhaps it's worth mounting a very public effort to get them there."
  • And His Jobs Strategy Probably Won't Succeed, concludes Salon's Andrew Leonard: "At the end of the piece there is zero sense that the White House has any coherent policy to boost jobs ... We're left with a picture of a president in an untenable position: he wants to boost jobs and portray himself as a fiscal conservative, but probably won't be able to achieve either goal."
  • Baker's Obamanomics Assessment Is Faulty, argues Joseph Lawler at The American Spectator. Lawler disputes Baker's claim that the stimulus produced or saved two to five million jobs, given that the Congressional Budget Office "hasn't provided any evidence" to substantiate its estimate. "That this is posed to become the historical narrative on Obama's first two years in office is disconcerting," he adds.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.