One of the political mysteries of the last year is why the White House and Congress have not been even more aggressive about trying to put people back to work.
It is true that President Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress favor more stimulus and have been stymied by Republicans and, more recently, conservative Blue Dog Democrats worried about the deficit. But it’s also true that Mr. Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have done less than they could have.
The president has not wrapped his arms around teachers, firefighters and other government workers facing layoffs and dared Republicans to oppose him, much as he did with financial reregulation. He has not pushed for a big new round of tax cuts, which could also put Republicans in a bind. And the White House has been slow to fill vacancies at the Federal Reserve that could go to officials who favor the Fed’s doing more to lift economic growth.
None of these steps would have cured the job market on their own. The aftermath of the financial crisis was always going to be long and harsh. Still, the Democrats find themselves in the position of heading into a midterm election campaign with the unemployment rate near 10 percent, knowing that they have not done everything in their power to bring it down.
Publicly, Mr. Obama’s advisers reject this description. “Job creation and economic recovery were and remain President Obama’s top priority,” Lawrence Summers said recently. Mr. Obama is now lobbying the Senate to pass a larger jobs bill than the House passed two weeks ago and pushing for an energy bill that could also create jobs.
But when they are not speaking for quotation, some White House and Congressional officials acknowledge that they could have done more to stimulate the economy, and sooner. In part, they have been busy with other things: legislation on health care, finance and education that could shape the economy for decades to come. The bigger reason, though, is politics.
In the face of near-united Republican opposition, top Democrats have decided that the political costs of aggressively pushing for more stimulus are too high. Any new bill will help only on the margins, and it will give Republicans another chance to blame Mr. Obama for the deficit, even though the current deficit is more of their own party’s making. The Democrats may be right, too. We will never know, because we will never be able to re-run the 2010 election under a different set of circumstances.
Yet the current circumstances bring their own political risks and their own economic costs, especially for anybody who is out of work or soon may be.