Economy Looking Up, But Politics Stuck in Neutral
Economy Looking Up, But Politics Stuck in Neutral

by Jules Witcover

On the surface, the news that the nation's unemployment rate dropped last month from 6.7 to 6.3 percent would seem to be cause to conclude that the American economy is finally recovering from the Great Recession of 2008. Instead, the cautionary flags continue to fly.

For one thing, 806,000 workers stopped looking for work, reducing the monthly work force in the calculation. Although the Labor Department reported 288,000 more jobs filled in April and the stock market continues to thrive, 3.5 million workers are stuck in long-term joblessness and left without federal assistance for 21 months or more.

It used to be considered that 6 percent was, if not akin to "full" employment, at least tolerable enough to say that the American economic machine was humming along at a satisfactory pace. But many who have managed to re-enter the work force have done so at the lower end of the wage scale than they enjoyed when last employed.

Congress meanwhile balks at boosting the federal hourly minimum wage from $7.25 to the $10.10 sought by the Obama administration. In all, 21 states have raised their minimum wage above the federal level, though not that high. California has raised it to $10 an hour, and the mayor of Seattle wants to take a leap to $15.for his city.

These actions have retriggered the argument that government should not intrude into what should be a private enterprise decision, even as polls indicate that nearly two-thirds of people surveyed favor an increase to at least $10 an hour.

Does a higher minimum wage boost consumer spending and help fire up the economy? Or is it a job-killer, strangling small and big business alike, stymying new hiring or even forcing manpower cutbacks? The debate goes on, as does kitchen-table calculating in millions of homes on how to keep putting food on that table.

Meanwhile, the other debate over Obama's health-care insurance law continues to simmer, despite the administration's report that 8 million enrollees have now navigated the early botched signup procedure through federal and state exchanges.

The Republican clamor to repeal the law has begun to fade, however, to calls for reforming it, from many legislators of both parties. And with more Americans now able to obtain health care for their previously existing conditions, proponents claim the law can actually be a significant boost to an economy still straining in low gear.

Democratic optimists on the economy also are citing the advent of better weather after a long winter of foul conditions and natural disasters, particularly in the South, Middle and Far West, as cause to shake off consumers' doldrums and get them back to buying again. But such musings may just be wishful thinking. Republicans, on the other hand, may risk being seen as rooting for Obama's failure in harping on the stalled economy.

In pure political terms, Democrats are trumpeting the federal minimum wage boost, along with attacks on income inequality, as their main themes in the midterm congressional elections that threaten their hold on the U.S. Senate. The Republicans stiil hope crying "Obamacare" will carry the day for them in November.

All this casts a pall over the national condition, compounded now for Obama by a stall in principal foreign policy challenges involving Iran, Syria, Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives and, foremost, the crisis in Ukraine. His Asian trip addressed none of these, raising questions about his priorities.

Every second-term president limited to eight years by the Constitution after FDR broke the George Washington tradition has had to deal with lame-duck concerns, whether in diminished clout or partisan obstruction in Congress. Obama seems to be facing both as the clock runs down on his presidency.

On every front, he encounters hostile forces: a business community benefiting from soaring profits that is reluctant to hire; an opposition party still stonewalling him; a Russian adversary bent on expanding regional power and global influence.

In light of all this, Obama's best prospect now is to use those actions by executive power that remain in his hands -- not to change America, as he promised in his 2008 election, but to move its economy along its present crawl to better days.







Article: Copyright © 2014, Tribune Content Agency.

"Economy Looking Up, But Politics Stuck in Neutral"




job title, keywords, company, location