Monday, December 6, 2010

Where Does Unemployment Rank Among Washington's Priorities?

By Sally Schilling

While Congress is focused on Bush tax cuts, former Newsweek senior White House correspondent Richard Wolffe says the government’s first priority should be addressing unemployment.

President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors put out a report last week warning that if Congress does not extend unemployment benefits, which expired on November 30, two million people could lose coverage in December and as many as 600,000 jobs could be lost over the next year.

Facing an inevitable congressional stalemate on tax-cut issues, Obama told legislators that they should work beyond political lines on unemployment benefits. Wolffe told MSNBC that Obama’s optimistic “moving beyond party politics” message is not a demand for action so much as a political strategy.

Wolffe – who, at the very beginning of the campaign, was asked by the Obama himself to write a book about his journey to the presidency – said that though bipartisan action on unemployment benefits is highly unlikely, speaking about the parties working together is what Obama needs to do to get re-elected.

The president needs to appeal to independent voters, Wolffe said, and independent voters want to see the parties working together. Having the inside scoop on the White House (his new book, Revival, describes his first-hand look at the challenges Obama faced in the first two years of his presidency), Wolffe thinks he knows exactly what is behind Obama’s every move.

So is Obama’s focus on getting re-elected a sign that unemployment doesn’t merit immediate attention?

A recent New York Times article compared the unemployment crisis today to quicksand, and said if the issue remains unaddressed, could become more like cement. Catherine Rampell wrote in the Times that instead of resolving high unemployment, European countries have grown to just accept it, and the U.S. could very well do the same. “The real threat, economists say, is that America, like some of its Old World peers, might simply become accustomed to having a large class of permanently displaced workers,” writes Rampell.

Millions of Americans undoubtedly feel that the urgency of the unemployment crisis is real, but, Wolffe’s observations suggest, Washington is too tied up in politics to act. Does Richard Wolffe think there is still hope for Washington to make a move before high unemployment becomes a permanent fixture of our economy? Come ask him when he speaks at the Club at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, December 7.


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