With unemployment still hovering around 10 percent, and economic anxieties fueling the "wrong track" sentiment in opinion polls, you'd think President Obama would be burning through his remaining political capital to get a major jobs bill through Congress.
Instead, Democrats have been captured by the newest conventional wisdom: Voters are anxious about the deficit. So, instead of a strong push to save teachers, firefighters, and police officers who are losing their jobs to state and local budget cuts, the White House seems to be settling for a minor jobs bill that won't amount to a bucket of water in a forbidding desert of joblessness.
It's no great surprise that Republicans - whose only economic strategy involves tax cuts - have lined up against the use of additional federal spending to counteract a staggering economic downturn. It's less clear how the Democrats were taken hostage by an idea that not only defies basic Keynesian economics but also disregards the current political winds. Tea partyers notwithstanding, most Americans aren't preoccupied with the federal deficit.
According to a new Pew Research poll, 23 percent cited the federal budget deficit as their top concern. By contrast, a substantial 41 percent put jobs at the top of the list.
That's no surprise, given a still-rocky recovery that has forced workers to live off unemployment checks and piece together part-time jobs. So why is Congress suddenly worried about federal spending rather than job creation? Why did Congress get fiscal religion after eight years of a profligate presidency that left the nation swimming in red ink?
Elected leaders are understandably nervous after the banking collapse of 2008 - especially since they didn't see it coming. With Europe struggling to contain a debt crisis that started in Greece and threatens to spread, no responsible U.S. politician wants to be accused of ignoring impending fiscal doom here.
But any responsible U.S. politician would read the fine print in the warnings: U.S. budget deficits will pose a critical problem for the economy about 10 years from now, as more baby boomers retire and entitlement spending soars. Should the White House work on a plan to balance the books before then? Absolutely.
One of the best ways to do that is to put taxpayers back to work. An estimated 20 percent or so of the current federal deficit, according to the Center for American Progress, was brought on by the recession; when taxpayers lose their jobs and businesses go bankrupt, they don't pay taxes. A recovery would boost the federal treasury.
An estimated 40 percent of the current deficit can be attributed to the policies of George W. Bush, who frittered away Bill Clinton's budget surplus on tax cuts for the wealthy, two unfunded wars, and a massive prescription-drug program. It's rich to hear GOP leaders - who participated in the tax-cutting and deficit-spending orgy of the Bush years - blame the swelling tide of red ink on Obama.
Emory University psychology professor Drew Westen, an expert in political communications and a Democratic consultant, blames Obama for repeatedly failing to lay the blame for massive deficits at Bush's doorstep, starting with his inaugural address.
"FDR never missed a chance to say this is Hoover's Depression," Westen said, adding that the president should have prepared the country for "four to six years of deficit spending to get us out of the mess my predecessor left."
Nor did the president do a good job explaining his first stimulus bill, which has been widely disparaged by Republicans and dismissed as ineffective, or worse, by taxpayers. In fact, mainstream economists credit the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act with creating and saving as many as 2.5 million jobs. That's not nearly enough - but it's a lot better than none.
It's in the political interests of Democrats to pass a robust jobs bill before the summer is over. It's also the right thing to do for the economy.