Racing the Clock on Jobs

In between this week's Afghanistan speech at West Point and next week's Copenhagen-Oslo double feature, the president fit in a jobs summit at the White House and a symbolic trip to Allentown, Pennsylvania, (where the restlessness was handed down) to talk about getting Americans back to work. It is a task that will likely dominate the rest of Obama's first term and play a critical role in whether he can convince voters to award him a second.

Despite the hoopla that preceded the Afghanistan speech and the second-guessing that followed, the Afghanistan policy will not be nearly as politically consequential in the short term as the president's plan for new job growth.

The West Point speech underscored, once again, Obama's superior talents in setting an agenda. As complicated and contradictory as the speech was, one came away thinking that we had a plan in Afghanistan; the discussion about whether it will work will drag on interminably, but at least there is something to debate. So where is the president's jobs agenda?

The New York Times editorialized: "To be a success, the White House job summit on Thursday must do more than put ideas on the table. It must produce an agenda for creating jobs." At yesterday's jobs forum, Christina Romer, who chairs Obama's Council of Economic Advisers, said that by her calculation they are about "9 millions jobs below where we need to be."

So Obama needs more than just an agenda. He needs to create jobs. We've seen the agenda, now we need the results. No matter what else he might accomplish -- he's on the verge with health care, Copenhagen is a strong signal that he means business in climate change, and he found some sympathetic ears with his Afghanistan speech -- none of it will matter if the economy does not begin producing new jobs soon.

The president bounced around the four breakout sessions visiting one on rebuilding the national infrastructure and another on creating green jobs, where he heard a proposal for replacing the 1 billion single-pane windows in the U.S. with more energy-efficient double-pane windows. All the windows are American made and the labor is domestic. The president liked the idea enough to draw a parallel to the wildly popular cash-for-clunkers program, the success of which he admitted surprised him. He pointed out that it was the car companies that packaged and marketed cash-for-clunkers and that it will be up to private-sector entities to market whatever new jobs program comes out of the White House.

Obama reminded everyone of the fiscal limitations that both he and the country face in trying to address the jobs issue. "Whatever we do will have to be strategic and surgical," he said. There are those who believe Obama's decision to spend so much capital on health care and climate change in the early stages of his presidency, before focusing on jobs, was a strategic error. I am not convinced that's necessarily true, but even if it were a mistake, it was not a fatal or irreversible one. In addition, there may not have been much more he could do to quicken the pace of the recovery beyond the massive stimulus package he signed into law his first month in office.

There are signs that there is good news in the offing. November job losses, to be announced Friday, are predicted to be the lowest in two years, maybe less than 100,000, but certainly down from the almost 600,000 lost in January when Obama took office. A turnaround may be imminent; the Conference Board predicts that the job losses will end early next year. But that cannot happen soon enough, and the president needs to be demonstrably aware of that urgency. If his Afghanistan speech was any predictor, whatever else we hear from Obama in Copenhagen and in Oslo, we are likely to also hear references to the dire state of the U.S. economy and the urgent need to create jobs.

The president is up against an unpredictable clock. With his approval rating hovering around 50 percent, he can't be sure how long Democrats in Congress will stick with him on anything if there is not some noticeable improvement in the jobs picture soon. The urgency on the job situation is not lost on Democrats in the House and Senate who must defend the seats of 18 Democrats in 2010.

Congressional Democrats who must face voters in less than a year are desperate for some kind of jobs legislation before the holiday break and are complaining that the White House is not moving fast enough.

But the president yesterday told one group at the jobs forum that the task before them, and him, is to do something "quick and visible."

Everybody's watching.