A Devil of a Job for Democrats

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will win his motion to proceed on a health-care reform package that should shave $127 billion off the federal budget deficit over the next decade -- the legislation will come to the floor of the Senate before Thanksgiving. In practical terms, that means the Obama administration will likely get to mark its first year in office with a remarkable set of legislative triumphs that, in addition to health care, could include some kind of financial reform legislation and maybe even a climate change bill.

These are big wins that will change our way of life significantly and constitute an admirable record of campaign promises kept. So it is no small irony that all this success may be of limited political value to Democrats as they go into the next election season: 2010 could be the year of the American job.

Democrats should be euphoric about their recent successes, but instead there is a creeping panic that they will face a harsh rebuke from voters next November if they don't act fast on the job front. On both sides of the Capitol, they are feverishly working on job-creation proposals that they hope to pass before they go home for the holidays.

"Health-care reform's very important, but we need to move dramatically, quickly, and with real conviction to dealing with this economy and jobs," said Dick Durbin, the second ranking Democrat in the Senate, in a television interview this week. "It's the number-one issue across America."

No kidding.

For all of his multi-tasking and globetrotting, the president seems to understand the high stakes involved on this single issue. He has scheduled a jobs summit for next month, and this week he said while in China: "Our first job was to get the economy to recover, and we're now seeing that. We've seen economic growth. We anticipate economic growth next quarter as well. I always said that job growth would lag behind economic growth. The question now is how can we accelerate it?"

But the time for questioning may be long past, and Democrats are beginning to realize that they should already have answers by now. The first big hurdle they must confront is the limited political appetite on the Hill for another round of stimulus spending. The last one isn't working fast enough, and more importantly that package is now inextricably linked in the public mind to the federal deficit's explosion. Given that the administration is getting ready to obsess about the deficit, these are no minor challenges.

Even the strong proponents of bigger stimulus spending package like Paul Krugman have given up any hope of that happening. The proposals under consideration include tax breaks for small businesses, another extension of unemployment benefits, and health-care subsidies for unemployed workers. But no one is sure which, if any, of these options will work and so the proposals grow more exotic by the minute: We're now looking as far as Germany for job protection models.

Apart from having to come up with real solutions to the job problem, the preternaturally cerebral Obama also faces the big danger that he somehow leaves the impression that he does not get it -- that he is so busy fixing the world and attending to the gritty policy questions of health care and climate change that he fails to understand the issue most important to the American people.

Admittedly, the White House seems to be working hard to avoid that fate. After the Dec. 3 jobs summit in Washington, the president will hold a town meeting the Allentown, Pa. In September, the unemployment rate in the surrounding Lehigh Valley was 9.5 percent, the highest it's been since 1983.

It will be interesting the see what -- beyond hope -- Obama sells in that speech. He knows he's playing a game of chicken with the economy. He must to talk up the small signs of economic growth that seem to point to the recession's end, but he can't make that rhetoric so rosy that it clashes with the reality of people's lives. In Allentown, they know what hard times are. In 1982, Billy Joel made them the poster children for economic downturns with his song "Allentown."

Well we're living here in Allentown And they're closing all the factories down Out in Bethlehem they're killing time Filling out forms Standing in line

The president better have something good to say to drown out those lyrics, or Democrats will pay dearly next fall.