White House spinners are working furiously in the final 72 hours before President Obama’s State of the Union speech. Their job: convince the recession-scarred American public that economic recovery is Obama’s top priority — after everything he has said and done to suggest otherwise.
The unemployment rate is 7.9 percent — one tenth of a point higher than it was when Obama took office in January 2009. But the true toll of joblessness is far higher. The Labor Department’s so-called U-6 rate, which includes people who want a job but have become so discouraged they have quit looking, is 14.4 percent. And a new study, by Rutgers University scholars, shows that 23 percent of those surveyed have lost a job sometime in the last four years, while another 11 percent have seen someone in their household lose a job. That is one-third of the American people who have experienced unemployment during Obama’s time in office, along with many more who have experienced other hardships of the economic downturn.
“Unemployment and what happened in the recession are society-wide experiences,” Rutgers professor Carl Van Horn, a co-author of the report, told me recently. And indeed, thousands of polls in the last four years have shown that jobs and the economy are the public’s top concern, ranking far above any other issue or set of issues.
Yet in what was likely to be the most-watched speech of his second term, his January 21 inaugural address, Obama ignored the issue of unemployment. Simply ignored it. The closest he came to even acknowledging a problem with the economy is when he said, “An economic recovery has begun” — five words out of a 2,100-word speech. Instead, Obama devoted significant portions of the address to gay marriage, global warming, immigration, and other priorities.
At other times since his re-election last November, Obama has made clear that other issues top his second-term agenda. In a New Year’s interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Obama was asked to name his top priority for the next few years. He put immigration reform at the top of the list. “That’s something we should get done,” Obama said. Economic recovery, Obama added, is “the second thing that we’ve got to do.”
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