Changing the conversation

“The Daily Show” had an interesting segment last week on the economy, featuring a noteworthy exchange between Jon Stewart and Senior Black Correspondent Larry Wilmore. I’m hoping folks in the West Wing caught it.

Stewart noted that Barack Obama won 96% of the black vote in 2008, and three years later, “they are disproportionately being left out in the cold economically.” Wilmore replied, “Yeah, he could lose the black vote…. If he can’t get a hold of this economy, then goodbye 96%, hello 94%.”

Now, the point of the segment was to joke about the African-American community’s unshakable support for the president. But what I found interesting were the assumptions that served as the premise of the joke. It’s simply assumed that Obama can and should “get a hold of this economy.” If I had to guess, I’d say much of the country makes similar assumptions about the scope of presidential power — this president, like any president, must have enormous and direct influence over whether the economy does well or not.

After all, he’s the president, right?

The larger truth, obviously, is more complicated. Obama can’t make congressional Republicans be responsible; he can’t make the Fed act; he can’t stop states from gutting public-sector jobs; he can’t fix the European debt challenges; he can’t help Japan recover from its recent disasters, he can’t lower gas prices, etc. It’s the worst of both worlds — there’s an expectation that Obama can simply use his vast power “get a hold of this economy,” without the applicable power to actually make a difference.

What President Obama can do, however, is help change the nature of the political discussion, away from the Beltway Deficit Feedback Loop, and towards job creation and economic growth. E.J. Dionne Jr. presents a compelling case today.

The broad feeling among congressional Democrats — a sentiment that moves toward impatience when it’s expressed off the record — is that President Obama needs to engineer a turn in the national conversation. Brown, for example, strongly defends Obama’s auto rescue and is happy the president is talking more about manufacturing lately. Yet he adds: “The president has got to get this discussion more on jobs and less on the budget.”

Obama believes and says in speeches, most recently last week at Northern Virginia Community College, that government has a major role to play in expanding opportunity. At the moment, though, the overwhelming message coming out of the nation’s capital (and one that defies economic logic) is that cutting spending is the only thing government can do to improve the economy.

Yes, we need a budget deal, and my hunch is we’ll get one. But all the spending cuts in the world will do Obama no good if unemployment next year is anywhere close to where it is now. Changing the message and the policies coming out of Washington is urgent. A deficit deal that ignores the unemployed will flunk the dual test the voters set up in 2010.

Putting aside intentions, at least for now, Republicans appear determined to pursue policies that would make the economy worse immediately. The public and the media are largely going along, convinced that reducing the debt and taking money out of the economy would somehow create jobs and make things better.

The more the president makes the case in a way Americans can understand, the better off he — and we — will be. Even if Congress refuses to act on jobs, it’s incumbent on the president to make the case anyway, if for no other reason than to make it clear who’s responsible.