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Memo to Congress: Unemployment Trumps Everything

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

Several months out from election day the Democrats’ prospects are not encouraging. If nothing else, history is against them since midterm elections usually go poorly for the president’s party. Theoretically their base should be fired up. Health insurance reform, the stimulus and revamping the student loan system (possibly the most undiluted win for progressives) are all items they can point to. Financial reform looks like it may go through, though even that modest and much reduced package is causing a mass freak out among the Masters of the Universe. Immigration reform has a shot, so does climate change. All in all, lots to celebrate, right?

As it happens, though, Republicans are considerably more energized; noting the "enthusiasm gap" Steve Benen warned: "The awakening next January will likely be a rude one — intractable gridlock, endless and pointless investigations, and a progressive policy agenda brought to an immediate halt. Hell, presidential impeachment might even find itself on the table." Such dire warnings seem to be part of the messaging about what might happen if the GOP gets control of the House or the Senate. The problem is, "be afraid, be very very afraid" is not terribly motivating. Republicans spent two election cycles warning voters about Nancy Pelosi bringing her San Francisco values to the heartland, and it did not work out too well for them.

More importantly, it ignores the elephant in the room. Unemployment is stuck near ten percent, and that will sink the Democrats in Congress if it does not come down. The only possible exception would be if they put forth another big stimulus bill and forced Republicans to spend a long, hot summer blocking it in the most high profile way possible – with an actual filibuster. The various procedural maneuvers Republicans have used to bring the Senate to a crawl do not really register outside the Beltway. In a way that makes sense; Democrats have the majority, and if they cannot implement their policies with it they deserve to be judged on that. Voters do not, and should not, care about why things are not getting done, they just care that they are not.

Getting millions of people back to work will brighten the perception of this Congress more than everything else it has done so far. If Congress cannot improve the jobs situation then any losses in the midterms will be deserved. It will not be because a complacent or apathetic base took them for granted, nor that voters do not truly appreciate all the hard work it has done, nor that the rise of the mighty teabagger movement has ushered in a new era of conservative ascendance. It will be because there have been massive job losses and our leaders have looked on passively, month after month, as it festered.

One other point that Congressional leaders do not seem to appreciate (publicly, anyway): The president is not on the ballot this year. He can afford to say the unemployment rate is unacceptable but leave it at that. In fact, it might actually help him if the economy stalls and control of the legislature flips. The GOP would probably do all the stupid, counterproductive things folks like Benen are warning about, but from a political standpoint how would that be a disadvantage? Every president loves a good foil, and Barack Obama would have an easier time running against a do nothing Republican Congress than a hobbled Democratic one. Being able to claim he was all that stood between citizens and a full fledged Depression would be extremely useful during his re-election campaign.

In other words, the leadership of the Democratic party may be at cross purposes. For Congress it is vital that they be seen as taking drastic steps immediately to prime the pump, kick start the economy’s engine and generally pull the bleak jobs market out of its tailspin (pick your metaphor). Tell voters you want to get Americans back to work and let the GOP invoke vague, and largely imaginary, threats like deficits (via) and inflation. Voters are not as terrified of the bond market as conventional wisdom thinks.

The president has no such urgency, and it may actually help him to get some anti-Democrat backlash sooner rather than later. If the House and Senate are content to let him continue to set the pace they can reasonably expect big losses in November. If they want to show some instinct for self preservation, though, they might want to highlight GOP obstructionism right away – and maybe send some bills to the president’s desk that he may not be ready for just yet.

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