A Matter of Priorities: President Obama’s Address on Job Creation

William A. Galston
Bill Galston
William A. Galston Ezra K. Zilkha Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

December 8, 2009

Timing is to politics what location is to real estate. Good policy ideas are useless if the time is not right. In a democracy, leaders must focus—and be seen to focus—on the problems the public cares about the most. If the political agenda is not aligned with the public agenda, the likely result is frustration and anger. Conversely, if leaders work hard on the public’s problems, the public response is likely to be favorable, even if the results are not immediate.

To state the obvious, the number one issue on the public’s mind is the sorry condition of the employment market, and the people want action to restart the great American jobs machine. In a speech delivered at Brookings this morning, President Obama went beyond the stimulus package to propose new job-creating measures, including help for small business as well as additional investment in infrastructure and weatherization (AKA “cash for caulkers”). He also endorsed the continuation of safety-net policies such as unemployment insurance, COBRA, and aid for hard-pressed states and localities. To pay for at least some of these measures, he recommended drawing on a portion of the unspent or repaid TARP funds, a program he described as unloved but necessary and proposed to “wind down.”

We can quibble about the details. For example, it’s not clear why the president once again passed up an opportunity to resuscitate his campaign proposal for a National Infrastructure Bank, which could help mobilize far more capital than either TARP or the normal appropriations process. But the larger point is that the president is beginning to realign his agenda.

But he’s just beginning. To complete the pivot and make 2010 the year of jobs, two other things must happen. First, the White House must fully integrate the jobs focus into the president’s schedule. Some equivalent of the Allentown visit should occur at least weekly, and it wouldn’t hurt to see the president in a hard hat, cheering on projects that wouldn’t have gotten started without government action.

Second, the legislative agenda for 2010 must reflect and reinforce the renewed focus on job creation. That means postponing items that the American people are bound to regard as diversionary as long as unemployment remains high. While action on items such as climate change and immigration is worthy in principle, the time is not right. If the president and congressional leaders try to force the pace, they are likely to fail—and pay a heavy political price in November.

Great presidents from Lincoln to FDR have understood that “now or never” is the ultimate false choice in politics. All too often, now means never. The “fierce urgency of now” should be reserved for what is truly urgent. As for the rest, patience is more than a virtue; it is a necessity.