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Americans Care About Jobs, Not Deficits -- When Will Obama Listen?

Obama is giving too much attention to deficit-reduction, and not enough to jobs.

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Political advisers who take such results at face value are fools. Yes, you can get poll respondents to say that the deficit is a serious concern, but it's a far less salient one than worries about losing your job, your health insurance, your pension, or the value of your home. If Obama can persuade the American people that he is their champion on these immediate pocketbook issues, the abstract worry of the deficit evaporates.

The political team also reportedly argues that Obama can't get serious jobs measures through the Senate in any case, and therefore a major effort would only make him look ineffectual. But this is also the wrong reading.

As I argued in a recent piece for The American Prospect, adapted from A Presidency in Peril, Obama needs to learn from the example of Harry Truman. In the summer and fall of 1948, when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, and Truman was widely given up as a goner, Truman responded by deliberately sending " the do-nothing 80th Congress" legislation on housing and jobs that he knew they would defeat -- to dramatize the difference between his own program and the Republican one.

Truman not only won re-election in November 1948 in American history's greatest electoral upset; his coattails were so attractive that 75 House seats went from Republican to Democrat, and the Democrats took back both houses of Congress.

If today's Republicans are blocking aid to spare 300,000 school teacher pink slips, and over a million unemployed workers who are losing their unemployment insurance and Cobra health coverage, Obama should be hanging that callous behavior around their necks, Truman style.

And in that respect, there is one surprising piece of news on the polling front from a most unlikely quarter -- the Peter G. Peterson Foundation.

The Peterson Foundation, bankrolled at a billion dollars, is spending a small fortune to persuade the American people that the deficit is a more serious menace than economic collapse, and that Social Security and Medicare need to go on the chopping block. I have rebutted this view in a paper for the Scholar's Strategy Network.

One of the Foundation's grantees is a closely linked organization called " America Speaks," which is supposedly a representative sounding of public opinion on the Peterson Foundation's favorite causes.

The " national town meeting" just completed June 26th, involving thousands of Americans by satellite link. You have to read the press release very carefully to find these results, but after extensive deliberations, the America Speaks poll included these findings:

  • 85 percent wanted to raise the cap on earnings subject to Social Security taxes--far more than the percent that wanted to reduce benefits or raise the retirement age.
  • 85 percent wanted to cut military spending.
  • 64 percent wanted a carbon tax.
  • 61 percent wanted a financial transactions tax.
  • 58 percent favored a new higher tax bracket for millionaires.


And these surprisingly progressive conclusions came, despite the fact that the exercise was heavily funded by the nation's most powerful propaganda organization that works to frighten Americans into believing that Social Security and Medicare are bankrupting the country! See Dean Baker's

terrific new analysis

of what the public understands and misunderstands about deficits, Social Security, and Medicare. The people are often ahead of the leaders and the pundits. If the administration paid attention to where public opinion really is, we'd be hearing a lot more about jobs and a lot less about deficits.

Robert Kuttner is the author of A Presidency in Peril: The Inside Story of Obama’s Promise, Wall Street’s Power, and the Struggle to Control our Economic Future, recently published by Chelsea Green Publishing Company. Kuttner also authored Obama's Challenge: America's Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency and several other books on politics and the economy. He is coeditor of The American Prospect magazine and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the progressive think tank Demos. He is a regular commentator on TV and radio, and a contributor to The Huffington Post and The Boston Globe, and a former longtime columnist for BusinessWeek. Previously, he was chief investigator of the U.S. Senate Banking Committee and a national staff writer on The Washington Post.

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