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LAMBRO: Fleeing the Holy Land for troubles

Economic woes await the president’s return

- The Washington Times - Friday, March 22, 2013

President Obama's job-approval polls have dropped to 48 percent, and the Federal Reserve says the jobless rate will remain high for the next two years, so it was time for a road trip.

When things are going badly at home, presidents often go abroad to shift the focus away from their failures. The president left the country this week for what was seen in the press as a symbolic, ceremonial visit to the Middle East to repair frayed relations with Israel.

Mr. Obama joked he was "getting away from Congress" by visiting the Holy Land. The Associated Press said he "planned to visit several cultural and religious sites aimed at showing his understanding of the deep and ancient connections between the Jewish people and the land that is now Israel."

In many respects, this was also a diplomatic mission to improve relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, reinforce the U.S. alliance with Israel, and to renew the U.S. warning to Iran to turn away from its plans to build a nuclear weapon.

Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Obama had publicly wrestled during the president's first term over how to deal with Iran and the attacks from Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Mr. Obama still thinks Iran can be deterred through diplomacy and the sanctions. The Israelis think it will require a punishing pre-emptive military strike to knock out their nuclear-material facilities.

Both sides now agree that the Iranians are a year away from building a nuclear weapon capable of striking Israel.

At the same, however, the trip reminded observers that the Obama administration had precipitously abandoned any pretense of restarting the Middle East peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

Mr. Obama gave the possibility of a new peace agreement plenty of lip service over the course of his visit, but the fact is it was pushed to the back burner by the administration and by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who gave it the cold shoulder.

Meantime, a long line of Mr. Obama's economic, fiscal and political troubles were backing up here at home.

If anyone thinks the president's economic policies are going to significantly improve the unemployment situation in his second term, the Federal Reserve's top economic analysts disabused them of that hope this week. In their economic forecast Wednesday, Fed economists said the jobless rate will remain high for at least two more years. They see the national unemployment rate, now at 7.7 percent, dropping to around 7.5 percent by year's end.

They also forecast that the unemployment rate will be between 6.7 percent and 7 percent by the end of 2014, at best. The Labor Department reported Thursday, however, that first-time claims for unemployment benefits rose last week by a couple of thousand jobless workers to 336,000 people. Maybe they'd better recheck their numbers.

For all of Mr. Obama's Hoover-like promises that a strong recovery is just around the corner, the job market remains as weak as it was throughout his first term, with 12 million Americans out of work. The unemployment rate among returning combat veterans was 9.4 percent in February. It is well over 14 percent when underemployed workers who need full-time jobs are added to the numbers.

A new Pew Research Center study released last week found "a big spike" in the number of working mothers, up to nearly 40 percent, who said they needed full-time jobs to make ends meet for their family.

The Fed threw cold water on the hope that four years of snail's-pace economic growth -- virtually zero in the last three months of 2012 -- would accelerate during the president's second term.

Fed economists said the Obama economy will grow -- crawl may be a more accurate word -- by as little as 2.3 percent this year, or no higher than 2.8 percent. That is far too weak to drive down the unemployment rate anytime soon. Economic growth could rise to around 3 percent in 2014, but there have been predictions of that subpar level before that have not had staying power.

There also are disturbing reports that millions of older working Americans are facing a retirement crisis in this economy. The Employee Benefits Research Institute, which monitors pension data, reported this week that the number of Americans who are saving for their retirement has plunged from 75 percent to 66 percent.

One-third said they were saving nothing when they were no longer employed in an economy where well-paying jobs were in short supply.

Mr. Obama's joke about "getting away from Congress" may backfire on him when someone steps forward to remind him of his State of the Union address urging lawmakers to get to work on his agenda. He didn't say he may not be there to help push his proposals to a vote.

Even if the president were there, it wouldn't have changed what happened to his gun-control bill on Tuesday. That's when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced the bill's assault-weapons ban was politically dead -- dealing the AWOL president an embarrassing defeat.

A number of Democrats, up for re-election in 2014, were uncomfortable with the assault-weapons bill that Sen. Dianne Feinstein pushed through the Senate Judiciary Committee. This means the Democrat-run Senate will likely take up a far less controversial, stripped-down bill when it returns from a two-week recess.

On another front, a major budget hurdle was cleared this week that locked in for the rest of this year the $85 billion in budget sequestration spending cuts that Mr. Obama wanted to repeal.

The Senate on Wednesday approved a budget bill for the remaining five months in this fiscal year, averting a federal government shutdown that was set to occur next week. It is expected to win easy approval in the Republican House.

This means the focus shifts entirely to the 2014 budget battle and two very different spending plans. The House GOP budget plan cuts spending, balances the budget and reforms entitlements. The Democrats' plan in the Senate makes relatively few spending cuts and calls for $1.5 trillion in new taxes over 10 years.

That's the heavyweight budget battle that needs to be fought, and it will play itself out over the course of the year. Whatever the outcome, one thing is certain: Republicans in the House are not going to give Mr. Obama any more new revenue in higher tax rates. That book is closed.

Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and contributor to The Washington Times.

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