Job one

JOB ONE…. For the White House’s Republican detractors, the politics surrounding the discouraging job market has taken on a new sense of urgency. For the GOP, unemployment is a wave to ride to relevance.

[B]y all indications, Democrats must endure that form of political torture for at least several more months. Whatever the fate of health care legislation, persistently high unemployment has made “Where are the jobs?” the most potent Republican campaign argument as next year’s midterm elections come into view.

Publicly, White House aides and Congressional leaders have responded with incessant attempts to highlight benefits from the $787 billion economic stimulus package they enacted earlier this year. Privately, Mr. Obama’s economic advisers are sifting options for a new package of tax cuts and other job creation measures to be unveiled in next year’s State of the Union address — or earlier if pressure for action becomes irresistible.

Republicans entered the age of Obama with hope in the traditional pattern of midterm election losses by a president’s party. But now unemployment trends have heightened their confidence that their political luck has turned more sharply and rapidly than most Republicans had expected.

As a matter of political strategy, that makes a lot of sense. The job market is awful; Democrats are in power; therefore it stands to reason Republicans would blame Democrats for the awful job market. If the economy improves over the next year, and the employment landscape is more encouraging, the GOP has a much tougher case to make. If high unemployment lingers and undermines economic growth, the GOP gets a cudgel the party will no doubt swing wildly.

The problem, though, is one of credibility. For one thing, as the economy fell off a cliff, President Obama pushed through a stimulus package that helped prevent a depression. At the same time, congressional Republicans wanted a five-year spending freeze, which would have had a catastrophic effect on the economy. Trusting the GOP on job growth is like trusting an arsonist on fire safety.

For another, when the government embraced the Republican economic agenda, it got us in this mess in the first place. George W. Bush was in office for eight years, and GOP lawmakers endorsed his economic policies every step of the way. And yet, Bush had the worst presidency on job creation of any modern (post-WWII) president. Indeed, when Bush sought a second term in 2004, he was the only modern president to have gone a full term with zero net job gains.

In other words, we tried it their way, and it didn’t work. Why deliberately bring back failure?

As Paul Krugman noted last year, “If there’s one thing that stands out above all over the economic record of the past 16 years, it’s the contrast between stellar employment performance under Clinton and dismal performance under Bush. You can offer various excuses and explanations, but how anyone can suggest that Republicans are more committed to and/or credible about job creation is a mystery.”