Obama faces dilemma over jobs council

If President Obama does not reauthorize his job council this week, the move will likely spark criticism from Republicans and could disquiet some Democrats.

Obama has a lot on his legislative wish list, and Democrats on Capitol Hill do not want the White House to get distracted from the top issue on voters’ minds: jobs and the economy.

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The Jobs Council has met in full only four times in its two-year existence, according to its own website, though it also held 18 “listening and action sessions” around the nation. Obama last year praised it as “a work council” rather than “a show council” and said that the White House had taken action on 33 of the 35 executive actions that the council had recommended.

But doubt now hangs over the question of whether the council’s original charter will be extended beyond its two-year term, with a White House aide telling The Hill that it “was only intended” to last that long.

The executive order that created the council states, “The [jobs council] shall meet regularly” and it “shall terminate 2 years after the date of this order unless extended by the president.”

Last summer, White House press secretary Jay Carney was asked why the council had not met for several months.

“There’s no specific reason, except the president has obviously got a lot on his plate. But he continues to solicit and receive advice from numerous folks outside the administration about the economy, about ideas that he can act on with Congress or administratively to help the economy grow and help create jobs,” Carney said.

Among the council’s recommendations were to reduce government regulations. But in his second term, Obama is expected to pursue a slew of mandates via regulations, most notably on climate change.

The council’s winding-down could be seen as emblematic of a shift in emphasis by the administration. While Obama fought his reelection campaign primarily on “kitchen table” issues and a promise to strengthen the middle class, he has turned increasingly toward traditional progressive goals such as gun control, environmental protection and immigration reform in recent weeks.

This, in turn, fuels concerns among some Democrats that the White House risks looking as if it has taken its eye off the economic ball in order to pursue more glittering liberal prizes.

“I think that in second terms there is a temptation to do as much as you possibly can because there’s a realization that this is it,” said one Democratic strategist. “But I think there’s a cautionary tale there because it has caused previous administrations to lose focus.”

Republican strategist Ken Lundberg argued that if Obama fails to “keep the panel alive,” it would suggest “he’s not focused on the economy.”

Lundberg added: “How does the president dissolve his jobs panel when 12.2 million Americans are still looking for work? If the economy softens further, the president is going to have a hard time getting Congress to focus on anything else but jobs, and that means his agenda for gun control, climate change and immigration will have to wait.”

Some see Obama’s new emphasis on other issues as emanating from a desire to cater to the liberal activists whose support was so central to his winning a second term as president.

“These loyal Democrats such as environmentalists, people concerned about gun crimes, women, and those seeking liberalized immigration are getting the major part of the president’s attention and a substantial amount of his political energy,” said Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University.

Obama has, in a sense, been here before.

In 2009 and early 2010, he pressed on with the battle for healthcare reform, even as the nation’s economy was ailing badly. Ultimately he succeeded, achieving the kind of expansion of healthcare coverage that Democrats had hankered after for a generation or more. But the fight used up valuable political capital, was highly contentious and is seen as having driven up Democratic losses in the 2010 midterm elections.

In 2011, congressional Democrats expressed frustration with Obama’s focus on cutting the deficit. A year later, they were pleased as the president’s election-year message homed in on jobs.

Now, some Democrats fear a repetition of that pattern.

“Both sides aren’t focusing in on what’s the most important issue right now,” the Democratic strategist said. “I think there will be a race to see who can grab onto the message focused on the economy. I think that’s going to be what determines who’s in control of the Senate and how well Democrats do at eating away at the Republican majority in the House.”

Independent experts feel that the kind of progressive goals for which Obama is aiming could be very hard to accomplish.

“With divided government, the president runs a risk of becoming an early lame duck if he can’t push at least some of his new proposals through Congress,” said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia.

“They are issues fraught with peril,” he added. “An assault weapons ban seems unlikely, though perhaps not universal background checks for guns. And what, exactly, will the president try to do about climate change? Republicans also have no incentive to help him succeed, fairly or unfairly.”

To be fair to Obama, it is hardly as if he is ignoring the economy. In his second inaugural address earlier this month, he reiterated, albeit in broad terms, his concern for the middle class.

“We, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class,” he said.

More specifically, a clear administration priority for Obama’s second term is bedding down the Dodd-Frank financial reforms in the hope that the kind of corporate recklessness that fueled the Great Recession can be averted in the future. Last week he nominated erstwhile prosecutor Mary Jo White to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission. If confirmed, she will have a key role in putting meat on Dodd-Frank’s bones.

Some observers argue that the economy is now on a solid road to recovery, however. In their view, Obama needs to make the most use of the time he has left at the center of power — and that might mean moving on to other things.