Sunday, January 24, 2010

OK, What Do We Do Now?

Borrowing Robert Redford's line after he unexpectedly won his election in the movie, The Candidate, no more appropriate words could describe the political and economic environments at this time, one year into President Obama's presidency. Anyone who is anyone, irregardless of political party, could not disagree with the fact that the populist unhappiness with the current state of affairs in the economy and so many lives is not the fault of one man--there is plenty of blame to spread around, including former presidents Bush and Clinton, the Congress, the Republicans, the Democrats--yet as the point person in our form of government in the U.S., rightly or wrongly, President Obama and his administration are obvious targets because he is the current captain of the ship. The daunting challenge now is to keep the ship from sinking despite the larger and larger waves of suffering and dissatisfaction.

We've heard the statement many times in recent weeks--"what a difference a year makes." A year ago President Obama was swept into office with hopes of change and political non-partisanship to help usher in his ambitious agenda. But therein lies two of his problems--party partisanship and gridlock are more entrenched now than ever and maybe his agenda was too ambitious and many would argue not prioritized as it should have been. Let's face it, despite the rhetoric, the Republicans covertly have hoped all along the President would fail because a legislative victory in his health care reform effort, or any major legislative initiative for that matter, could mean the wave of positive momentum could sink the Republican Party, already barely treading water from ideological differences between its moderate and far right, conservative wings. Merits or not, whether it's the cost, the deficits, federal government intrusion in our lives or ineptitude, you name it, health care reform could not and would not succeed without at least some Republican support. Enter the unemployment crisis and the lingering effects of the Great Recession allowed to fester during the President's watch while a contentious health care reform debate drags on for months and months and you have a perfect storm for what happened in Massachusetts--a Republican senator elected for the first time since 1972. I'm not saying health care reform is not important or badly needed--almost universally this is a given--it's just that the economy and joblessness should trump even health care reform at this time. What good is health care reform when people don't have jobs to pay for it even when you factor federal subsidies in the equation? One could also argue that provisions in the House and Senate-approved plans could even be at least a partial contributing factor in why businesses aren't hiring new employees because of the plans' projected cost implications and advertised penalties to business for non-compliance. At this point, decisions will have to be made on whether any real reform is possible in this overly partisan political environment and/or what watered down version could emerge worthy of the President's signature. If I were a betting man, I would have to say that the chances are not good--certainly below the over 50 percent needed.

So, all this being said, President Obama and his team now are forced to chart a new course in these turbulent waters. Health care reform is relegated to a sidebar issue and the targeted focus turns to where it probably should have been in the first place--the economy and jobs. We'll hear more details on the new course direction in the President's State of the Union address this week. How much the President and his team can really do to help on today's job scene when conditions are so bad is certainly debatable, but something needs to be done and done quickly. As the unemployment crisis drags on, every day solid and responsible middle class Americans are losing their life savings, their retirement nest eggs, their homes, and, more importantly, their sense of security and dignity. Suffering is happening across all demographics but the situation is especially bleak for those 18-29 and increasingly so for those over 50 who want and need to work but have become not only victims of corporate downsizing but also of age discrimination as they try to seek new, full-time responsible paying positions in competition with everyone else. With 6.7 unemployed (not to forget the underemployed) people seeking each single job opening, the odds are not good, especially for those in the 50+ demographic where hiring managers and youthful HR gatekeepers are often quick to dismiss their candidacies as too costly and/or overqualified.

There are no easy answers during these unprecedented times. But one thing is clear. It is not the time to point fingers or crow about artificial political "victories." While things might be rosy with the stock market, on Wall Street, the big banks and others bailed out by the taxpayers, on Main Street a real crisis exists and needs solutions not gridlock. Democrat or Republican, neither party should feel particularly secure about their positioning in this midterm election year. People need help not empty promises.

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