White House’s Over-the-Cliff Moment

When historians look back on this moment in American politics, they may wonder why the White House failed to focus on the consuming issue of the time: the economy — and, in particular, jobs.

An exasperated U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Pa., said in a recent phone interview, "Frankly, our constituents really just want us to focus on jobs."

Instead, he and five Western Pennsylvania congressmen are caught in the crosshairs of Washington’s political blood sport, as both parties clash over debt limits and deficits.

Outside Washington, constituents are clamoring about the economy — or, as U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, interprets it: "Let us know when you guys are done with the bickering, so we can talk about fixing our economy."

On Friday, the Commerce Department released stunning numbers that showed that the U.S. economy grew less than forecasted. Consumer spending, which is about 70 percent of the economy, climbed 0.1 percent.

What did that mean? Well, not much in terms of growth.

Most analysts estimated that the economy only grew at an annualized rate of 1.7 percent between April and June; it only grew 1.3 percent, which borders between abysmal and anemic.

In fact, our economy would need to chug along at a little more than 4.5 percent growth for a whole year to bring down the unemployment rate by 1 percentage point.

Manufacturing, one of the few economic sectors that has seen growth lately, posted a drop in orders for long-lasting goods in May, according to a mid-July report by the Commerce Department. Those orders are expected to grow, however.

Still, Americans have the jitters when it comes to buying; they have no confidence in the "American Dream" right now, and no confidence means no buying.

Their attitude is backed up by a report issued by a liberal research and advocacy group, the National Employment Law Project, showing that more than 70 percent of the jobs added since the recession began have been in low-wage occupations paying less than $14 an hour.

So, creating jobs is the important mission for members of Congress, according to U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Butler, a member of the 2010 freshman class. He and Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, want to see the White House focus on jobs, too.

"Creating well-paying jobs is even more important," adds Rep. Mark Critz, D-Johnstown.

All five lawmakers — Casey, Altmire, Kelly, Murphy and Critz — said their constituents want Washington to take action on jobs, based on phone calls to their offices and comments they hear when meeting with voters in their districts.

Voters in Pennsylvania want to see manufacturing and energy production through coal and Marcellus shale gas become central parts of any economic renewal, not only in the Keystone State but across the country.

Murphy thinks Pennsylvanians have a remarkable work ethic, and he wants them to have opportunities to use it.

In June, the nation’s unemployment rate rose for a third straight month, as employers added only 18,000 workers and corporate earnings languished.

Anyone buying basic groceries can feel the pinch of consumer prices rising to offset higher commodity costs, so buying little beyond what you absolutely need has become the norm.

President Barack Obama’s support has eroded among the very independent voters who helped him sweep into office. That drop-off is based on his inability to lead on numerous issues, but most importantly on the economy.

The latest Pew Research poll confirms just that: Only 8 percent of those polled say the national economy is in excellent or good shape, and only 38 percent rate their personal finances positively.

Such attitudes place Obama in an even worse position than President George H.W. Bush was in during his failed 1991-92 re-election campaign, because today’s unemployment rate is much higher and overall satisfaction with the state of the nation is much lower than it was back then.

Polls are no substitute for understanding basic human judgment. Yet they can mark that point in time when an administration fell off the cliff of understanding its own people.

Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at [email protected]