Job one

JOB ONE…. The White House jobs summit kicks off today, though expectations for major breakthroughs are fairly low. The event will reportedly bring “130 corporate executives, economists, small-business owners and union leaders to the White House to sound out ideas for accelerating job growth during the worst labor market in a generation.” It can’t hurt to kick some ideas around, but it’s hard to imagine meaningful new policy proposals emerging from the forum.

The Washington Post report on the summit, however, noted that Obama administration officials are “unwilling to make any investments that would add significantly to the nation’s ballooning deficit.” Labor leaders have put forward ideas — aid to cash-strapped states, more funding for infrastructure projects — but “taken together, those initiatives could cost hundreds of billions of dollars — a tab Obama seems unwilling to shoulder.”

It reminded me of something Dean Baker said via email this week. (I’m republishing his note with his permission.)

Remember the Bush vs. Clinton debates in 1992? The highlight of the townhall debate was when a young woman asked President Bush how the debt affected him personally. He gave the normal answer about how he worries about his grandchildren blah, blah, blah.

The woman looked at Bush like he was from Mars. Then Clinton stepped up and asked the woman whether she knew people who lost their jobs. She said yes. Then Clinton went on to say that as governor of a small state, when there were layoffs, he almost certainly knew some of the people affected.

This was the sort of answer the woman was looking for. She had asked a question about the debt, but she was really asking about the economy. I think that discussions of the debt are often a placeholder for concerns about the economy.

I looked up the transcript of that ’92 debate, and Dean’s description is spot-on. The specific question was, “How has the national debt personally affected each of your lives. And if it hasn’t, how can you honestly find a cure for the economic problems of the common people if you have no experience in what’s ailing them?”

Bush started talking about interest rates, and then transitioned to talking about his grandchildren. He eventually said, “I’m not sure I get it. Help me with the question and I’ll try to answer it.”

The moderator intervened: “I think she means more the recession, the economic problems today the country faces rather than the deficit.”

The clarification mattered — because the question didn’t really make sense. The voter wanted to know if the candidates could relate to families suffering through tough times, but she asked how “the national debt personally affected” their lives.

Eighteen years later, the White House wants to create jobs, but it’s afraid of increased deficits and debt. This, like the ’92 debate question, is a mistake. The debt isn’t the problem; unemployment is.

As Speaker Pelosi explained last week, “We’re never going to decrease the deficit until we create jobs, bring revenue into the Treasury, stimulate the economy so we have growth. We have to shed any weakness that anybody may have about not wanting to be confrontational on this subject for fear that we’d be labeled not sensitive to the deficit…. The American people have an anger about the growth of the deficit because they’re not getting anything for it.”

The assumption is that voters will be impressed if policymakers bring down the deficit by a fraction of a percent against GDP. They’ll be far more impressed with those who get America working again.