In the sixth month of his second term, President Obama is still putting his national security team together and trying to figure out what he wants to do during the remainder of his presidency.
So far, Mr. Obama, who spends much, if not most, of his time delivering speeches and not much else, doesn’t seem to have a clue. He has become the “podium president,” who has no policy-focused, comprehensive agenda to speak of, except that he knows he doesn’t want to deal with the economy, which is now clearly in decline.
While polls show the economy remains the No. 1 concern of the American people, it’s deliberately become “the quiet crisis” in Mr. Obama’s government — unheralded, unspoken, unnoticed and untreated. No one talks about it, least of all the Democrats up on Capitol Hill.
The question of where to find a well-paying, full-time job in this economy has become far less important in this administration than who can win the message wars on any given week, or how we can ride out the scandals that now threaten to engulf his presidency.
At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, a battery of committees and subcommittees are holding hearings on a range of administration scandals that fall under the rubric of “abuse of power.”
House lawmakers heard testimony this past week from ordinary Americans who have formed local, conservative, good-government groups and who said the Internal Revenue Service demanded to know the names of political people with whom they’ve been in contact, and wanted copies of speeches they’ve given and a list of their donors. These were only some of the disturbing inquiries that seemed to threaten their constitutional right to freedom of speech and for “the redress of grievances.”
The IRS made no such inquiries into liberal nonprofit groups that were similarly seeking tax-exempt status.
Elsewhere, lawmakers are digging more deeply into Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s dubious claim that he had no role in the administration’s alarming search of a Fox News reporter’s emails — when numerous public reports say he signed off on the Justice Department’s order.
Now we learn that the government’s top-secret National Security Agency is collecting the telephone records of tens of millions of Verizon customers as a result of a court order issued in April.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration is busily preparing to put into full gear next year the president’s health care program, which will authorize the IRS to slap tax penalties on millions of Americans who do not obtain health insurance. Small businesses that do not provide medical insurance for their employees will be liable, too.
Is it any wonder that 56 percent of Americans recently said in a Gallup poll that “the federal government today has too much power”? Look for that number to shoot up in the 2014 midterm congressional election campaigns.
A little more than a week ago, the national news media was hyperbolic over the news that home prices were rising in many metropolitan areas, as were home sales — declaring that this was proof-positive of a more robust economy.
Left unreported, though, was the fact that home sales remain far below their highs before the subprime home mortgage collapse, and that they have had only minimal impact on economic growth.
University of Maryland business economist Peter Morici reminds us that home sales at higher prices only impact [gross domestic product] and employment to the extent they drive up consumer spending and new home construction.
However, consumer spending is weakening, and even though homebuilding is up, “housing construction is only 3 percent of GDP,” Mr. Morici points out. “Bottom line: A more robust economy can drive housing, but surging housing prices are no panacea for what ails the economy and jobs market.”
With mortgage rates on the rise again toward the 4 percent level, partly in anticipation of the Federal Reserve suggesting it may begin tapering down its low-interest rate policy, home sales could be in for a decline.
Let’s take a look at the fundamental economic data in the past couple of weeks in the aftermath of the over-the-top cheerleading on the major nightly news shows that the economy is showing new signs of life.
The Commerce Department reports that consumer spending fell 0.2 percent in April for the first time in nearly a year. Battered by higher taxes (including this year’s hike in the Social Security payroll tax) and high gasoline prices, consumers have pulled back. Not a good sign.
Mr. Obama continues to claim that manufacturing is back as a result of his policies, but manufacturing output fell to its lowest level in four years in May, according to the Institute for Supply Management’s manufacturing index, which fell from 50.7 in April to 49 last month. “We definitely have seen some softness in the economic data for manufacturing over the last few months,” Chad Moutray, chief economist for the National Association of Manufacturers, told The Washington Post this week.
Workers are getting squeezed. Hourly pay scales for those who do not work on farms dropped at a 3.8 percent annualized rate in the first three months of this year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this week. Hourly pay has risen by 2 percent annually on average over the past four years. That’s “the weakest four-year stretch on record,” writes economic analyst Mark Gongloff on the Huffington Post website. Overall, weekly wages have been flat.
Payroll provider ADP reported this week that U.S. businesses added just 135,000 jobs in May, well below the 165,000 jobs created in April. Notably, the private survey firm found that manufacturers lost 6,000 jobs last month. If Friday’s Bureau of Labor Statistics job report comes in anywhere near this range, it will be an unimpeachable sign that the economy is slowing down dramatically once again.
Some analysts insist this downturn is in large part because of government spending cuts, but a meager $85 billion in sequestration cuts isn’t seriously hurting a nearly $17 trillion economy. This is the result of anti-growth, anti-job tax rates, regulations, energy and trade policies.
Don’t look for a dramatic change in the Obama economy anytime soon, if ever. The president and his party seem perfectly comfortable with his policies and see no reason to change them now.
Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and contributor to The Washington Times.