That is a tough map to draw.
First, think about the economic challenges we face:
--We need jobs, which are facing both a demand-crunch in the recession and a long-term structural challenge.
--We need to loosen the middle class squeeze and reduce income inequality.
--We need a sustainable budget path.
--We need to expand coverage and control costs in health care.
--We need adequate regulation in key sectors, including financial markets and climate.
--We need reinvestment in public goods, education, and infrastructure.
That's a surplus of needs next to a deep deficit of motivation. The GOP field of presidential candidates doesn't deal with any of them and often makes them worse. Gov. Rick Perry's tax plan, for example, cuts taxes for the richest tenth of a percent of households -- average income: $8.4 million -- by $1.5 million and loses $570 billion per year in revenue. Every one of the GOP candidates wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank financial reform. Their jobs plans combine trickle-down, supply-side tax cuts with policy non sequiturs like shuttering the EPA.
President Obama has ideas that could help, but they won't get anywhere in Congress. His jobs plan has been scored as helping workers and reducing the deficit. His clean-energy agenda would put a price on carbon. His budget proposal achieves sustainability in the 10-year budget window. And health care reform and financial regulation are imperfect but sensible steps in an essential direction. We can have legitimate arguments about the effectiveness of these proposed solutions, but you can't argue the fact that they make clear attempts to address the long list of America's needs.
REMEMBER HOW WE GOT HERE
The public is actually quite supportive of the objectives and the policies that the president has put forth in all of the areas above. The components of the American Jobs Act poll in the 60s and higher. A majority of Americans want higher taxes on the rich, more support for jobs, more rules to rein in the banks, and broader health care coverage. But they also have increasingly diminished faith in the ability of government to get any of this stuff right. President Obama's approval rating is flirting with the low 40s. Congressional approval ratings have set all-time lows.
In other words, people are acutely aware of not just market failure, but of government failure as well. And to the extent that they're still paying attention to what passes for governing these days, they're reminded of the latter daily.
Yet, rewind the clock a bit, and one can achieve some clarity from this muddy picture. It was a blind faith in laissez-faire policies got us where we are. The great supply-side, deregulatory, self-correcting market experiment of the 2000s blew up in the lab and led to the election of a president who ran on change. And, in fact, that President legislated some big changes targeted at the above list, including the Recovery Act, and health care and financial reform. The latter reforms haven't much kicked in yet, but as for the Recovery Act, independent analysis shows that it clearly helped pull the economy back from the cliff it was zooming towards. When it comes to breaking the back of the Great Recession, government (along with the Fed) actually performed well.