It had become a ritual. Every first Friday, Barack Obama would appear before the cameras to cast the monthly jobs report in the best possible light, usually highlighting the modest progress made since the recession.
This time, however, no amount of spin could hide the raw truth. The U.S. economy created zero jobs in August and eight in 10 adults think the country has fallen back into recession.
So, this time, Mr. Obama stayed silent. For the man Republicans quickly dubbed “President Zero,” there was no point trying to persuade Americans that he is on the right track in his handling of the economy.
As he headed to Camp David for the weekend, Mr. Obama had not just the fate of 14 million unemployed Americans on his mind. The job-creation proposals he will unveil next week may be his last chance to make a case for his prescription for growth – and his own job renewal in 2012.
The August unemployment report – which showed the overall jobless rate stuck at 9.1 per cent and at a staggering 16.7 per cent among African-Americans – gave renewed saliency to GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney’s campaign slogan: “Obama Isn’t Working.”
“To change the direction of this country, we need to change presidents,” the former Massachusetts governor said on Friday.
Since he came to office, Mr. Obama has preached the economic gospel of clean energy, tougher regulations, industrial policy and higher taxes on the rich. He has made little progress in implementing this vision. Where he has, the results have been unpersuasive.
The case of California-based solar power manufacturer Solyndra Inc. is being held up by Republicans and right-leaning economists alike as an example of Mr. Obama's misguided approach to economic policy-making. The company got a $535-million (U.S.) loan guarantee under Mr. Obama’s 2009 stimulus package. On Wednesday, it declared bankruptcy, leaving more than 1,100 out of work.
Solyndra's was the third bankruptcy filing by a U.S. solar company in the past month, undermining a major thrust of the President’s economic policy. The optics, going into Mr. Obama's Sept. 8 joint address to Congress, could hardly be worse.
“The promise of clean energy isn’t just an article of faith; it’s not just some abstract possibility for science-fiction movies,” Mr. Obama said in a 2010 speech at Solyndra’s Fremont, Calif. plant. “The future is here.”
Those words have come back to haunt the President. He is accused by Republicans of wasting time and taxpayer money on top-down, interventionist economic policies and spurning proven, market-based solutions. Solyndra’s failure makes it harder for him to refute that.
Republicans on the House of Representatives energy committee have opened an investigation into the White House’s involvement in the decision to aid Solyndra, whose investors included the foundation of a major Democratic fundraiser.
Mr. Obama may be right when he says, “The countries that lead the clean-energy economy will be the countries that lead the 21st-century global economy.” Patient money in China is fuelling that country’s clean-tech boom.
But his administration has had to concede that Americans do not buy into that vision. On Friday, the White House overruled its own Environmental Protection Agency by cancelling the implementation of new air-quality rules. Industry lobbyists had argued the proposed standards for ground-level ozone would have cost countless jobs.
After dropping calls for climate legislation, another plank in his plan to transform the U.S. economy, the President has little political capital left.
Mr. Obama will attempt to argue next week for more stimulus measures, an approach that is largely supported by mainstream economists.
But unless Republicans in Congress agree – and the odds of that are slim – Mr. Obama will likely return to his fallback position. He has argued that hyperpartisanship is hurting the economy. In other words, it is not his fault.
Is that a good-enough excuse?
Starbucks chief executive officer Howard Schultz, who donated to Mr. Obama in 2008, has called on fellow CEOs to withhold campaign contributions until Washington reaches a “comprehensive, bipartisan debt-and-deficit package” and “break[s]the cycle of economic uncertainty.”
Mr. Schultz has thrown his weight behind No Labels, a group of like-minded Democrats and Republicans whose frustration with the gridlock in Washington has fuelled speculation that a centrist, independent candidate could emerge to challenge both Mr. Obama and the GOP nominee in 2012.
Billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who gave a speech at the No Labels launch in December, might have been that candidate. But with Mr. Bloomberg’s approval rating in the cellar, that idea now appears dead.
Unless Mr. Obama soon shows he knows how to put Americans to work, they will start looking for someone who can.