Sunday, August 7, 2011

Mixed Signals

"Campaigning in last year's midterm elections, Obama argued over and over again that Republicans had driven the economy into a ditch; from now going forward, the question will be why he hasn't towed it out."

Karen Tumulty
Washington Post
Aug. 5, 2011

It was almost predictable — except that things are so darn unpredictable these days.

About the only thing that seemed to be predictable last week was the weather — here in north Texas, we're in a potentially record–setting stretch of consecutive 100–degree days.

First the debt ceiling went down to the wire — which a lot of people were predicting. Then the overseas markets began some scary gyrations that spooked the American markets on the eve of the July jobs report. Fewer people were predicting that.

The signals just prior to the jobs report were not promising, and people were understandably nervous about what would happen on Friday, when the report came out and the markets began reacting to it.

Well, the jobs report was better than expected, and stocks got an early bounce from the news — but then things settled into a rocky pattern that capped a volatile week on Wall Street. I guess some people understood that, while it was better than expected, the jobs gains were still far short of what is needed to get the economy on a sound footing.

(Of course, it depends on who is doing the spinning. Democrats are likely to point out that jobs have been added to the economy in each of the last 10 months, which is true. But in most of those months, including the most recent one, the gains weren't even close to what the economy needs to average for several years.

(And Republicans are likely to overlook their prominent role in the making of this economic crisis — and act as if the president is solely to blame.

(Politicians like to blame their rivals for things. It reminds me of a comedy album in the 1970s in which a comedian mimicked an embattled Richard Nixon telling the nation that he was taking full responsibility for the Watergate scandal — but not the blame.

("Let me explain the difference," the comedian/Nixon said. "People who are to blame lose their jobs. People who are responsible do not.")

And then S&P lowered the U.S. credit rating from AAA to AA+. It's a kind of economic probation, I have heard economic experts say — potentially reversible but only if the U.S. government cleans up its act.

As polarized as the federal government is today, I don't have a lot of hope for that one. It seems to me that what is really needed is presidential leadership. It has been sorely lacking.

Some people disagree with me, and that is fine, but the fact remains that unemployment is higher now than it was when the president took office — and that is what many voters see when they look at this administration's economic record.

I have heard some Obama defenders speak with satisfaction of the recent jobs gains — but the raw numbers say that the unemployment rate went down by the same amount — 0.1% — that it went up the previous month. No real ground has been gained by the economy this summer.

In fact, the decline in the credit rating suggests the opposite. But who knows?

Not much is clear to anyone, least of all the ordinary citizens — especially the ones who have been out of work and just want to be self sufficient, to have at least part of their lives back. They don't care about global politics and foreign economies, but their lives are being affected by them, anyway.

They are the ones for whom leadership is most important right now.

David Gergen knows something about presidential leadership. He worked with four presidents, and he shares, at, his thoughts following a recent visit to London, where he saw the Churchill War Rooms.

"On both sides of the Atlantic," he writes, "the turmoil of this past week has sparked cries for those in political power to step up and for God's sake, lead."

His visit to the Churchill War Rooms convinced him that a Churchill is what is needed here.

Churchill's times were uncertain as well, Gergen points out, but he set clear goals and led the march, even if he was marching into a murky future.

"On several walls hang posters from those days: 'Keep Calm & Carry On.' That is very much the spirit that leaders of today need to instill in peoples across the Atlantic," Gergen writes. "They must replace fear with faith in the future."

If that happens, maybe the signals won't seem as mixed.

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