On November 2nd, Democrats were “shellacked” because they didn’t have a coherent message about the jobs crisis. Whereas Republicans said, “Lower taxes and fewer regulations create jobs,” Dems equivocated, “Let’s not go back to the Bush era.” To prevent another Democratic disaster in 2012, President Obama must develop a forceful jobs narrative.
While most demographic groups shifted in favor of Republicans, only “liberals” – 20 percent of the electorate – stayed with Democrats. Political analyst Bill Schneider noted Dems lost because the other wing of their base, the populists, abandoned them.
Schneider observed there is a class difference between populist and liberal Democrats. While they share many of the same values, when times are tough populists focus on jobs and the economy. When they leave the Democratic base, “What’s left is a liberal Party: the Party of Speaker Nancy Pelosi.”
To bring populists back into the Democratic Party President Obama has to have a coherent jobs message. He has to be reborn as a populist and speak with passion and coherence about jobs.
Two days after the election, Obama was interviewed by Steve Kroft for 60 Minutes, which illuminated the problems with the President’s jobs narrative.
Obama acknowledged the jobs problem but didn’t seem to know what to do about it. When asked what message voters sent on November 2nd, Obama responded: “I think that, first and foremost, they want jobs and economic growth in this country. They want to feel that the next generation is gonna be able to benefit from the American dream the way previous generations have.” Then the President acknowledged that his message hadn’t worked: “The hardest argument to make in politics is: things would have been a lot worse if we hadn’t done all those taken all these steps… So, people are looking and saying, ‘Well government intervened a lot, spent a lot of money, and yet, I still don’t have a job or my neighbor still doesn’t have a job or that home is still being foreclosed down the block.’ And our argument was, ‘Well, we had to take these steps to stabilize the economy and things would be a lot worse if we hadn’t taken these steps.’”
Towards the middle of the interview, Kroft focused on jobs: “You spent nearly a trillion dollars on the stimulus package. Short-term interest rates are practically zero. And still the unemployment rate is 9.6 percent. What can you do to create jobs that hasn’t already been done?”
Unfortunately, Obama did what he has often done recently, he got defensive about his stimulus package. Then, rather than get specific about a jobs program, the President spoke in vague terms of “things we can do to accelerate growth:” accelerated equipment depreciation, new infrastructure projects, tax breaks for companies investing in the US, investment in clean energy, and so forth. That was all that was said about jobs, the 60 Minutes interview segued into whether Obama could work with a divided Congress.
If the Democrats are going to win back the populist wing of their Party, the President has to develop a forceful jobs narrative. Eight steps are involved:
1. It can’t be defensive. Whether the 2009 stimulus was good or bad, it’s ancient political history. The President needs to reset the political dialogue by stating: The number US problem is the lack of good jobs. That’s my top priority.
2. Obama has to be passionate. One of the problems with the Kroft interview was that the President appeared cerebral. If jobs are truly his number one priority, he has to convey that he cares about the subject.
3. Obama is at his best when he speaks from a solid values base. He needs to kickoff his jobs initiative by stating the obvious: Every American who wants to work should be able to find a decent job.
4. The President should be careful about going into wonk mode. Nonetheless he should talk about a handful of specific ways to create good jobs: a public-private partnership to jumpstart employment, one that could involve accelerated depreciations schedules and the like.
5. Obama should deplore outsourcing and call for penalties on US corporations that outsource jobs.
6. He should indicate that he is willing to renegotiate trade agreements to protect American jobs.
7. Of course, the President should reach out to Republicans, ask them for their concrete suggestions about creating jobs. However, he should warn them that since this is the nation’s number one priority, Americans will not accept delay or obstruction on this critical topic.
8. Finally, Obama has to explicitly state that if necessary government must be the employer of last resort. He should take a forceful stand for a massive effort to upgrade America’s infrastructure.
Management consultant Peter Drucker famously observed, “concentration is the key to economic results.” Concentration is also the key to political results.
Barack Obama needs to focus on America’s jobs problem. He needs to make it his number one priority and let everyone in the country know that.