In a more enlightened era, the latest depressing economic news would trigger a muscular response in Washington. The president and congressional leaders would compromise on a sweeping plan that would win bipartisan support. There would be job programs and a significant investment in public infrastructure. There would be new revenue, targeted spending cuts and a blueprint for overhauling entitlements and reducing the federal deficit. The emphasis would be on governing instead of winning elections.
That would be the dream, anyway. The reality is that the politicians are treading water and waiting for the November election while everyone else struggles to stay afloat. President Barack Obama is too timid, and Republicans in Congress are too obstructionist. The result is a weak economy that is getting weaker, a frustrated electorate and a hesitant business community reluctant to hire workers or invest. While Democrats and Republicans blame each other, families and small businesses sense they are on their own.
Friday's jobs report showed the economy gained just 69,000 jobs in May, and the unemployment rate ticked up to 8.2 percent as more people looked for work. Average weekly wages declined, and more than 5 million people have been unemployed for more than six months even as extended unemployment benefits are running out. The Dow Jones Industrial Average had its worst day of the year Friday and dropped a bit more Monday. All of this should be a call to action in Washington, but all it has generated is glee among Republicans that more bad economic news is bad news for Obama's re-election campaign.
The president should embrace his campaign slogan, "Forward,'' and explain to Americans what should be done now instead of what could be done after the election. Obama should call for more public investment to create jobs, not less. He should resurrect his modest jobs package that Congress rejected last fall. And he should embrace a clearer long-term strategy such as the balanced Simpson-Bowles approach, which wasn't perfect but offered a reasonable mix of spending cuts and tax reform to reduce the deficit. The president should lead, and he should force Congress to compromise or go on record against job creation.
As much as congressional Republicans blame the White House for the nation's weak economy, they do not hold the high ground. The Senate and House remain deadlocked over a transportation bill that could create jobs. They can't even agree on how to keep the interest rate on subsidized college loans from doubling this summer. The budget passed by the House and developed by Republican Paul Ryan of Wisconsin is a prescription for disaster, with spending reductions and tax cuts at the expense of economic investment. Republicans eager for an Obama defeat and a Mitt Romney victory in November should be mindful of the consequences, because there would be no check on such an extreme approach.
Even with Friday's disappointing news, the economy has improved since the depths of the economic collapse that was triggered by conditions Obama inherited. As PolitiFact reported Sunday, the unemployment rate has dropped, the median home sales price has risen and corporate profits have increased. But the recovery has not been fast enough or strong enough, and the reasons are more complicated than 30-second political commercials suggest.
The nation should not have to wait until after the election for help from Washington, and voters should reward those who attempt to lead and forge consensus now. Stalling only makes it more difficult to compromise later on raising the debt ceiling, resolving the fate of the Bush era tax cuts and avoiding the mandatory budget cuts in January — three issues that combined could trigger another economic recession if cooler heads don't prevail.