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Published: Wednesday, 3/10/2010

Focus on jobs, not health care

BY BOB HERBERT

THE Obama Administration and Democrats in general are in trouble because they are not urgently and effectively addressing the issue that most Americans want them to: the frightening economic insecurity that has put a chokehold on millions of families.

The economy shed 36,000 jobs last month, and that was trumpeted in the press as good news. But once you realize that it will take 11 million or more new jobs to get us back to where we were when the recession began, you begin to understand that we're not making headway.

It's also known by now that the official employment statistics understate the problem. Once we take off the statistical rose-colored glasses, we're left with the awful reality of millions of Americans who have lost - or are losing - their jobs, homes, small businesses, and hopes for a brighter future.

Instead of focusing with unwavering intensity on this increasingly tragic situation, making it their top domestic priority, President Obama and the Democrats on Capitol Hill have spent astonishing amounts of time and energy on an obsessive quest to pass a health-care bill.

Health-care reform is important. But what the public has wanted and still badly needs are bold efforts to put people back to work. A major employment rebound is the only real way to alleviate the deep economic anxiety that has gripped so many. Unaddressed, that anxiety inevitably evolves into dread and then anger.

The talk inside the Beltway, that super-incestuous, egomaniacal, reality-free zone, is that Mr. Obama and the Democrats have a messaging or public relations problem. We're being told - and even worse, Mr. Obama and the Democrats are being told - that their narrative is not getting through to the masses.

That's silly. People are upset because they are mired in economic distress and are losing faith that their elected representatives are looking out for their best interests.

They've watched with increasing anger as their government has been hijacked by the economic elite. They know that the big banks that were bailed out by taxpayers can borrow money at an interest rate of near zero while charging credit-card holders usurious rates of 20 percent to 30 percent.

They know that the financial fat cats are fighting the creation of a truly independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency. They know that while ordinary Americans are kept out of the corridors of power, the elites with their lobbyists, lawyers, and campaign donations have a voice in every important decision that is made.

It's not the message that's a problem for Mr. Obama and the Democrats; it's the all-too-clear reality. People know that the government that is supposed to be looking out for ordinary, working, and poor people is not doing enough about an employment crisis that is lowering standards of living.

This is not just a short-term crisis. There are many communities in which the effective jobless rate is higher than 50 percent. Many state and local governments are grappling with disastrous revenue shortfalls that are forcing cuts in services and layoffs, and threatening the viability of a modest national economic recovery.

A University of Michigan survey of consumer sentiment in February found that 60 percent of consumers expect to receive no income gains in the year ahead, the worst finding in that category in the history of the surveys.

The Republican Party has nothing in the way of solutions to Americans' economic plight. It is committed only to the demented policy of trying to ensure that Mr. Obama and the Democrats fail.

But the fact that the Republicans are pathetic and destructive is no reason for the Democrats to shirk their obligation to fight powerfully and relentlessly for the economic well-being of all. There are now six people in the employment market for every available job. There is a staggering backlog of discouraged workers who would show up tomorrow if there were a job to be had.

The many millions of new jobs needed to make a real dent in the employment crisis are not going to materialize by themselves. Mr. Obama and the Democrats don't seem to understand that.

Bob Herbert is a columnist for the New York Times.



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