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A Bruised President

12:00 AM, Feb 1, 2014 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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Others want to help the unemployed by passing legislation proposed by the president to extend the usual 26-weeks of unemployment benefits by perhaps three months, the previous 99-week extension having expired at year end. That, say Obama’s critics, would only discourage many of those who have dropped out of the work force to remain on their couches rather than renew their efforts to find work, or  seek training that would suit them for what the president calls “21st century jobs,” many of which are now unfilled. All seem to agree that whether the problem is too few jobs, too few good-paying jobs of the sort that built the American middle class, or too much being siphoned off by “the 1 percent,” more rapid economic growth would be part of any solution. That, say such as former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, just might be beyond our reach. He worries that we might have entered a period he tags with the long-forgotten label “secular stagnation”—growth too slow to produce full employment, or of a nature that relies more and more on robots and other substitutes for human labor.

Meanwhile, the president is urging Congress to pass a new stimulus package to fund another try at creating jobs by rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure. Never mind that perhaps 2,000 (Obama) to 20,000 (Keystone advocates) jobs are there for the taking if the president would end three years of stalling and approve the Keystone Pipeline that would bring more Canadian oil to the U.S. To Obama, there are good jobs, such as installing solar panels on rooftops, erecting wind farms, and growing marijuana, and bad jobs, such as mining coal or building an oil pipeline from Canada to the U.S.     

A bruised president, hemmed in by a Constitution that places power of the purse in the hands of a Republican-controlled House of Representatives, and by an electorate that disapproves of his job performance, nevertheless proclaims this a “Year of Action” in which he will deploy two weapons. The first is the power of the presidential pen (and a photo of said implement released to the press), to be used to bypass Congress and rule by executive order, notably in the energy sector by having his regulators write rules affecting carbon emissions.

The second is by seeking cooperation from the private sector and ordinary citizens. He has extracted pledges from several leading businesses not to discriminate against the long-term unemployed when filling job vacancies; is asking moms to persuade their healthy youngsters to sign up for Obamacare to offset the large number of sick and elderly who might drive insurance premiums to unaffordable levels; and is asking those children to guide their moms through the computer maze they confront when seeking to enroll in his health care program—“Your mom will appreciate hearing from you,” he joked.

The general consensus among Democrats is that the president has set a usable stage for the coming elections, and among Republicans is that his speech was a confession of a lack of power to implement even a modest agenda. Independents will be heard from on Election Day.    

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