Teachers not ‘doing fine’: Can Obama find his footing on recovery?

President Obama urged Congress – again – to pass his $450 billion American Jobs Act to shore up public sector jobs, particularly some 250,000 teaching positions lost in the last three years.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
A group of young children hold hands as they cross the street with their teachers on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, New York.

While downplaying a remark Friday that the US private sector is “doing fine,” President Obama nevertheless focused on stalwarts of the public sector – teachers – for his weekly Saturday address, saying Washington has to spend more to help states re-hire laid-off teachers.

“There are plenty of steps we can take, right now, to strengthen our economy.  Putting teachers back in our kids’ classrooms is one of those steps,” Obama said. “And there’s no excuse for inaction.  You work hard.  Your leaders should, too.  Especially at this make-or-break moment for the middle class.”

The debate over whether Congress should pass the American Jobs Act, which proposes to spend $450 billion on state aid and infrastructure improvements, has come amid pre-election grappling over the President’s handling of the US economy, and what role a recalcitrant, tea party-infused Congress has played in scuttling Obama’s path to recovery.

While some have calculated Obama has overseen the slowest spending growth in decades, others point to the growth of the overall share of government spending as part of GDP from an average of 20 percent under President Bush to over 24 percent under Obama as evidence that the White House’s main tactic for bolstering the economy is to grow the public, or government, sector.

To be sure, many Americans agree with Obama that fresh federal funding to aid state governments struggling with massive public sector layoffs as well as new infrastructure projects to put construction workers back on the job should be a priority, and that opposition by Republicans is counterproductive, even irresponsible.

“For sure no Republican was going to support the American Jobs Act,” writes longtime Texas columnist John Young, in the Austin American-Statesman newspaper. “The proposal would have paired a cut in the payroll tax with a boost in spending for infrastructure, state aid for schools and first responders, and additional unemployment relief. Nein. Nicht. No. Nyet. How many ways can the GOP say no?”

But especially given the failed recall of Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin, which many have seen as a major blow against public sector unions and a referendum on the Republican strategy of cutting government spending to boost economy, Obama’s suggestion that it’s public employees, not private ones, who really need help suggests an either/or calculation that’s likely to fuel questions about how well Obama has grasped the nuances of the US economy.

At the very least, the “doing fine” line will fuel Republican campaign efforts, as it in part mirrors John McCain’s massive misread of the economy during the 2008 campaign, when the GOP nominee for president suggested  economic fundamentals remained “strong” even as the country was nosediving into recession. At the time, Obama pounced on that statement to paint McCain as out of touch.

“In part, the (‘doing fine’) episode underscored the degree to which the president is struggling to find his footing in his reelection campaign,” writes the Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty, in an analysis. That’s a far different challenge, Ms. Tumulty suggests, “from the one he faced when the first-term Illinois senator made his long-shot bid for the presidency four years ago.”

In his address on Saturday, Obama said the nation has lost 250,000 educators in the last three years alone, a blow to an already struggling national education system. He noted that a good teacher has been estimated to add $250,000 of lifetime wealth to his or her classroom.

Obama’s focus on public sector employees dovetailed with statements he made on Friday, where he made the point that private businesses are, in fact, modestly expanding while the public sector is in retrenchment as states struggle to balance budgets.

Yet the analysis, some political experts said, failed to connect with a gut feeling many Americans have that their own job prospects are far from secure, even as many large American corporations are sitting on record amounts of cash as they resist expansion amid regulatory uncertainty.

“Listen, it's absolutely clear that the economy is not doing fine," Obama said after getting hammered by Republicans on the “doing fine” suggestion. "There are too many people out of work. The housing market is still weak, too many homes underwater, and that's precisely why I asked Congress to start taking some steps that can make a difference."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.