Janesville73°

Wasted (air) time

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David Broder
June 17, 2010
— Far be it from me to tell the crew of public relations officials who now occupy those West Wing offices as a reward for running one of the best presidential campaigns anyone has ever seen, but…

If there is any value in President Obama’s knocking himself out to dramatize on prime-time television his impotence in the face of the Gulf oil leak calamity, I wish someone would explain it.


His multiple inspection trips to the afflicted and threatened states, his Oval Office TV address to the nation, and now his sit-down with executives of BP have certainly established his personal connection with one of the worst environmental disasters in history. But the only thing people want to hear from him is word that the problem is on its way to being solved—and this message he cannot deliver.


Polls so far suggest that voters have a sensible and realistic perspective on all this and are not punishing Obama for failing to anticipate the drilling platform accident and not having a handy tool kit for its repair. To date, his approval numbers have barely moved.


But by dramatizing his belief that the struggle in the Gulf has become his main preoccupation, Obama has essentially ignored challenges that may be much more vital to the country—and to him.


It was no White House official but Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee, a conservative Blue Dog Democrat, who called my attention to a short story in The Wall Street Journal last week reporting that U.S. companies are hoarding more cash—$1.84 trillion—than at any point in financial history.


The newspaper noted that the cash reserves had jumped 26 percent in one year, the largest increase since at least 1952. Cooper’s point is that by stockpiling that vast amount against the possibility of a double-dip recession or another wave of bankruptcies, nervous executives are starving business of investments for expansion and freezing unemployment at a painfully high level.


“They were badly burned in the Great Recession,” Cooper said, “and now they are nervous about government policy.”


Uncertainties in Washington about energy policy, taxes, financial regulation—to say nothing about bad news bulletins from Afghanistan and other overseas datelines—cloud the economic picture more than oil plumes pollute the Gulf.


But Obama seems focused on the relatively insignificant. With the administration and Congress whipsawed between those calling for more government-financed stimulus and those warning of deficits soaring out of control, the president has weighed in belatedly on the side of more stimulus spending.


Those involved in the fight in the Senate will tell you that Obama might have had more success with his plea had he made it earlier, before the Senate passed its own version of an emergency spending bill. At this point, Republican and conservative Democratic opposition put the 60 votes needed to expand Sen. Tom Harkin’s measure beyond reach.


So action has shifted to the House side, where Obama’s plan to bail out state and local governments by financing more unemployment benefits and hiring of teachers and others threatened with layoffs has been steadily whittled into insignificance.


While Obama asked for stimulus spending that might add $80 billion to the deficits over the next decade, opposition from budget-conscious members of both parties has reduced the package being discussed by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer to about $10 billion—and some of this might be offset elsewhere in the budget.


“They’re fighting over $10 billion, while $1.8 trillion is sitting out there,” Cooper exclaimed.


While some claim the fiscal crisis in the states is exaggerated, Tuesday’s edition of Stateline.org, the website that covers the 50 capitals, featured as its top 10 headlines reports from California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, and Louisiana, detailing how they are “still struggling” with reduced revenues, lowered credit ratings, employee furloughs and stubborn unemployment.


Obama may be excused for impotence in the Gulf. But no president can escape responsibility for the budget and the economy.


David Broder is a columnist for The Washington Post. Readers may write to him via e-mail at davidbroder@washpost.com.

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