At last, turning toward jobs

Having staved off default, it’s time for Washington to heed voters’ most important demand: creating jobs!

While Americans want to cut government spending (in general, though not any specific spending), voters do not share Washington’s single-minded obsession with deficit reduction. As the recovery stalls, for most voters, job creation ranks as a higher priority. 

With the link between economic performance and political outcomes by now axiomatic, at least for loyal readers of this column, and economic reality trumping most everything else, the health of the economy should be Democrats’ central preoccupation. The fact that perceptions of the economy have been deteriorating sharply for weeks is cause for real concern. 

In Gallup’s most recent reading, 79 percent say the economy is getting worse — an increase of 19 points over the last five weeks. It might be comforting to lay that change at the feet of the debt-limit debate and the now-receding fear of default it engendered. If that’s the cause, some may reason, the effect might be muted with agreement finally achieved. Unfortunately, while that is part of the story, it is likely not all of it.

Already in June, the number telling The New York Times that the downturn was permanent rose by 11 points from the end of 2010. 

As V.O. Key famously said, “voters aren’t fools.” Their viewpoint reflects an underlying reality. Gallup projects that when the July unemployment numbers are released Friday, they will reveal a further uptick in joblessness. 

More tellingly, the momentum of the recovery has stalled. Data analyzed by Bloomberg chief economist Richard Yamarone point to an economic deceleration beginning in early June. July saw U.S. manufacturing growing at its slowest pace in two years. The economy almost ground to a halt in the first half of the year, with GDP growing at a tepid 1.3 percent annual pace in the second quarter after expanding just 0.4 percent in the first.

In the midst of continuing economic dislocation, it is hardly surprising that voters are focused on jobs, even while Washington grapples with the deficit. Gallup found nearly twice as many voters who said that “jobs” is the most important problem facing the country as who offered “the deficit,” even in the white heat of the default debate. Indeed, the number citing jobs jumped 8 points since April. 

A National Journal survey yielded comparable results. The largest number of Americans (34 percent) selected unemployment as the country’s most pressing economic problem, followed by the cost of living, at 25 percent. Just 15 percent were most concerned about the size of the deficit, and 10 percent about the risk of default. 

Our own survey, conducted for the Alliance for American Manufacturing, together with our Republican colleagues at Ayers McHenry, confirmed the priority accorded to jobs. Fifty-eight percent cited creating jobs as one of the most important things Congress and the president should work on, while 48 percent said that about creating manufacturing jobs in particular. A lesser 40 percent identified reducing the federal deficit as one of the most important things for Washington to deal with.

Asked directly which they would rather have the president and Congress focus on, 67 percent responded job creation, while just 29 percent prioritized deficit reduction. Even Republicans and Tea Party supporters put the emphasis on creating jobs rather than on reducing the deficit, albeit by smaller margins than Democrats and independents. 

Republicans forced a national detour into the debt-limit debate. The issue had to be dealt with. But unless Democrats get back on the road to creating jobs and back in sync with voters’ priorities, the forecast for the next election could turn awfully bleak.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the Majority Leader of the Senate and the Democratic Whip in the House.