WASHINGTON – On June 4 President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden went just outside of Washington, in Hyattsville, Maryland at the K. Neal International truck company to tell us the good news of yet another month of job increases in America. The President acknowledged that the majority of the 431,000 new jobs added in May are temporary workers hired by the Government to fulfill the once every 10 years national census data gathering. But he also said that all the other jobs created indicate that we are on an upward trend. The trajectory is good. “We are moving in the right direction”. The economy is healing. With new jobs families will have income, they will be able to spend more and thus boost the prospects of other businesses across America, etc. etc.
May jobs data good?
Watching this performance of the President with a viable, sturdy small business, representing America’s resilience, as an appropriate background, the average American could feel somewhat heartened. While the President was not bombastic, he certainly wanted to tell us that the jobs data is good and that it validates all his policies. Message: “America, we are still not out of the woods, but we are making progress; and my policies are working just as intended”. Well, not so, Mr. President.
Well, no; May jobs data bad
It turns out that the very same job data hailed by the president as comforting reassurance of an economy moving in the right direction caused one of the worst days on Wall Street this year. The Financial Times June 5 front page headline reads: “Markets Rocked as Jobs Data Disappoint”. Indeed, the good jobs numbers cited by the President as positive news have been interpreted by the markets as very bad news; so much so that the Dow Jones lost 323 points, closing below 10,000. Well, how’s this possible? The market reacting badly to good news?
The truth is that the census workers are not just “the majority” of new hires that caused the May jobs growth, as Obama indicated. They are 411,000, (the President somehow forgot to mention this), that is to say 90 per cent and thus virtually the totality of new jobs. Subtract the temporary census workers paid by the Government and we have a dismal net national increase of only 41,000 jobs. All sources quoted in the article referenced above indicated that the data is truly disappointing, showing a much slower pace of economic recovery than previously anticipated and a much tougher road ahead. Hence the stock market sell off.
Presidential spin no big deal?
So Obama misrepresented the facts related to new May employment data in a way that is pretty close to an outright lie. So what? Is this really a big deal? Can we blame a President for giving a positive spin to bad news that may otherwise create a negative mood? Isn’t the President supposed to use his office as a “bully pulpit” so that we are inspired instead of being depressed?
Defending one’s policies and manipulating data is not one and the same
My answer is that the President cannot do this. It is quite alright for Obama to point to possibilities and to identify his policy goals. But it is not alright to openly manipulate numbers to prove one’s point, in the process creating distortions that amount to falsehood. You cannot say that the sun shines at midnight. Sure enough, this bad May jobs data may turn up to be just a blip, a temporary set back. But the President loses credibility by not calling a spade a spade. This was a bad day for the economy. Instead of dancing around and saying that all the new jobs created, even discounting Government jobs, indicate that we are on a good course, when it is not so, Obama would have looked a lot better if he had recognized the data for what it is: bad. One month of bad jobs data by itself does not invalidate a policy; but the clever spinning that the President engaged in is deceitful and it ultimately undermines his personal credibility.
Obama did not change the old politics, in fact he practices them
More broadly, this very episode, while in itself not incredibly egregious, is bad enough and indicative of a far worse truth: nothing, absolutely nothing has changed in Washington after Obama came along as Savior in Chief. The really bad news is that this new breed of supposedly saintly policy-makers doggedly dodge, spin and deny, always concocting a version of events that furthers their political advantage, just as the old ones; this way slowly poisoning the atmosphere, because a constant diet of half truths, manipulation and distortion reinforces a cynical view of Government.
And this continuation on the part of Obama of the old distortion game is especially bad because Obama –surely we all remember– promised to us all that he would radically transform all this. No more spin. “I’ll tell you like it is. I’ll level with you. I will not lie. Because I am not afraid of the truth, Ill be able to build coalitions”. This is what candidate Barack Obama promised to us during the campaign of 2008.
Obama had promised a transformation that did not happen
Remember that Obama was supposed to be not yet another Democratic Party machine politician (a la Hillary Clinton), fighting with the usual weapons to regain a White House about to be vacated by a very unpopular George W. Bush. He was the total outsider. He was supposed to be the incarnation of a new way to do politics, away from stratagems and cleverness and all about substance and open coalition building, all solidly grounded on truth telling.
But it turns out that the biggest promise of this “New Era” is also the biggest disappointment. This New Man with no Washington experience, (and thus no Washington related baggage), was going to reconnect us with the intrinsically good spirit of America, making us whole again. And he did not.
Obama was elected because he incarnated a new vision of politics
Of course, other Presidents at the beginning of their mandates promised to change the atmosphere, to “reach across the aisle”, to engage all people of good will, for the benefit of America, etc. etc. But in the case of Barack Obama and the enthusiastic, cyberspace connected, grass root adoring movement that poured an avalanche of money into his coffers during the campaign the “Age of Obama” was prophesized to be something like an Advent. “He knows”. “He will do things”.
Obama practices what he condemned
Well, he did not. Certainly it would be unfair to blame Obama alone for the increasingly vitriolic mood prevailing in Washington these days. The Republican Party is also greatly at fault. The opposition by and large proposes nothing that can resemble a real, constructive alternative. Saying “no” to everything may be expedient to get some more votes in the November mid-term elections. But this is not enough as it does not energize the country.
Still, President Obama provides an even worse example because, in practice, he is engaging in the very same manipulative tactics that he run against while a candidate. The little June 4 show is just indicative of a willingness to distort and rewrite bad news so that facts will appear different.
Washington insiders uninterested in niceties about truth telling
The Washington “inside the Beltway” crowd of lobbyists, power brokers, and consultants is far too jaded and cynical to even notice these, shall we say, creative interpretations of reality. For them a spinning White House is par for the course. Everybody does it. Lying is a serious matter only when it is under oath, before a Grand Jury or a Congressional Committee. This crowd smells blood only when someone within the inner circle of power may get indicted, and the closer to the President the better.
A steady flow of half truths undermines Government’s credibility
But instead I maintain that it is exactly this garden variety of everyday, “Orwell-lite”, manipulation, spin and half truths that undermines the credibility of office holders and eventually the prestige of institutions. People may not follow all the details of public policy; but at some level they know that they are being lied to and they do not like it. In many cases their frustration may remain inchoate, passively swallowed with resignation.
The “Tea Party Movement” as an expression of frustration
At times this discontent may flare up just like with the present “Tea Party Movement” phenomenon, born out of frustration with a Government that appears to take us along a dangerous course of debt and more and more interference in the lives of private citizens, all the time telling us that they know what they are doing.
This is not about Obama’s political future
Nobody knows what will happen with the Obama presidency. In American politics positive surprises, just as upsets, are routine. Likewise, “coming back from behind” stories are almost mandatory for all self-respecting politicians. Bill Clinton’s Democrats were routed by the Republicans in the mid-term elections of 1994; and then Clinton ended up sailing to re-election in 1996. So this is not about forecasting political fortunes.
America cannot work without confidence in the institutions
This is about re-creating in America an atmosphere of trust in the institutions that, according to repeated opinion polls, is now at historic lows. Simply stated: Americans do not believe in their Government anymore. This has to be reversed. And the healing process has to start with leveling with the public and telling the truth. So, Mr. President, go ahead and defend your approach and your economic policies in public debates. But do not point to fake evidence to support your positions. Do not cite distorted statistics to prove that things are working out well even when they are not. Do not hide behind manipulations. When the new jobs numbers are bad, level with America, and just say so.