The one-two punch of Tuesday’s elections and Friday’s unemployment numbers has reframed the policy debate in Washington. To quote Democratic campaign guru James Carville: “It’s the economy, stupid.” That’s as true now as it was in 1992, when he first said it.
Voters in both the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races Tuesday declared the economy and jobs their No. 1 issue, trumping local concerns. The Republicans won both elections. And on Friday, when the news broke that national unemployment had crossed the psychologically painful barrier of 10 percent for the first time since 1983, the Obama administration sent its top economic advisers – and President Obama himself – to the airwaves to reassure the public that they were on top of the situation.
The thrust of their message: We feel your pain, and we’re doing everything we can. Earlier Friday, the president signed a bill extending unemployment benefits for up to 20 additional weeks.
This quick pivot toward the economy, on the eve of a historic House vote on comprehensive healthcare reform, reflected the challenge that Mr. Obama faces as he seeks to continue his ambitious policy agenda while tackling the worst recession since the early 1980s.
With both major political parties looking ahead to the 2010 midterm elections, “what you are going to see now is a consolidation of the national agenda," says Thomas Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
By that he means that the Democrats may decide Obama is trying to do too much, while Republicans will look to Virginia and see that Bob McDonnell won the governor’s race as a conservative by soft-pedaling social issues and focusing on jobs and taxes.
The Obama administration all along has insisted that its big agenda – from health reform to energy legislation to education initiatives – is tied to the need for cost savings and job creation during a period of profound economic change.
But for Americans who have lost their jobs, or who worry their job is next, a laser-beam focus on jobs is what they want to hear.
Obama sought to do that soon after the job numbers were released. “I can promise you that I won’t let up until the Americans who want to find work can find work, and until all Americans can earn enough to raise their families and keep their businesses open,” he said from the Rose Garden.
The chair of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, Christina Romer, offered a good news/bad news message in her statement. Although the unemployment rate has gone up, the rate of job losses has declined, she noted. Employment has risen in the temporary-help and motor-vehicle industries. And the economy grew last quarter for the first time in a year.
But, “having the unemployment rate reach double digits is a stark reminder of how much work remains to be done before American families see the job gains and reduced unemployment that they need and deserve,” Ms. Romer said.
At his midday briefing, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was asked if the administration might now go for a second stimulus package, following the $787 billion plan that Obama signed in February. Mr. Gibbs hedged.
“Our focus obviously continues to be on ensuring that that money gets out as quickly as it is prescribed,” Gibbs said, referring to February package. “The president and his team for some time have been evaluating other ideas. Advisers were here earlier in the week to go through some of their ideas that the president and the team will look at and decide if they make the most sense.”
• Staff writer Peter Grier contributed to this report.
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