For those who missed it, President Barack Obama turned his attention to the U.S. economy this week in speeches where he renewed his commitment to green energy, boosting manufacturing, and spending more on infrastructure like roads and bridges; chastised Republicans for political gridlock; and reached out to the still-hurting middle class.
While these were familiar White House themes and many are quite popular with voters, the "major" policy announcements drew a ho-hum response that may have resonated no farther from Galesburg, Ill. (the site of one speech) than Peoria. The New York Times gave the story a ride on page 16 in Thursday's edition. In much of the media, Anthony Weiner's wife got more attention for standing behind her chronically sex-scandalized man.
That's not to suggest that the Obama prescription for economic recovery doesn't come pretty close to hitting the target. On many topics, from the idiocy of the meat-cleaver approach to federal spending cuts forced by sequestration to the need to include the middle class in the prosperity that has visited the affluent but left them behind, he's absolutely right.
But the whole thing had the feel of a politically motivated response to falling poll numbers that show President Obama's approval rating dipping well below 50 percent as fewer Americans say they believe he has the right economic agenda. In a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 51 percent of respondents said they didn't like his handling of the economy.
Why so glum? Probably because they know — as we know, as everyone knows — that Mr. Obama's economic prescription isn't going anywhere, at least not insomuch as it requires anything more than executive orders. Forget the recent bipartisan progress in the Senate over immigration and appointments; House Republicans are as hostile as ever and, as the president even pointed out, it is likely that the federal government is about to be held hostage again.
House Speaker John Boehner is warning that Congress will not raise the debt ceiling without cuts in spending. In particular, he and others in the GOP, including House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, have set their sights on entitlement programs like Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security. Never mind that the White House and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have indicated that they will accept nothing but a clean bill raising the debt limit.
We won't bore our readers with yet another long explanation of how nonsensical it is to hold the debt ceiling hostage (raising the limit doesn't authorize new spending but merely makes it possible for the government to pay outstanding bills). The public knows this is silly. Even many of those who want to shrink government at all costs know it's foolish. And yet here we go again.
The latest deadline of Oct. 1 is still two months away, but the impasse is likely to consume Washington once Congress returns from its August recess. The standoff could easily descend to the kind of crisis that took place in 2011, which resulted in a downgrade of the nation's credit rating and the ridiculous sequestration compromise. Or maybe this time, an extended shutdown of government.
Want to lower the deficit? Join with Democrats and devise a combination of rational spending cuts and tax reforms that could gradually address the budgetary imbalance, as Mr. Obama has repeatedly offered. Heck, the improving economy is already cutting into the problem. Why stop the recovery's momentum now? But it's really worse than that. Some in the GOP want to make sure the repeal of Obamacare is part of any debt ceiling deal.
It's useful to note that Democrats aren't the only ones who find the Republican behavior on the debt ceiling bizarre and counterproductive. Republican Sen. John McCain, the party's nominee for president not that long ago, recently warned against debt ceiling "shenanigans." He and some other GOP senators are looking for more constructive negotiations to avert another fiasco.
So while President Obama can dream of a day when Washington might actually do something useful to help the nation's economy, the more immediate challenge is making sure Congress doesn't sabotage it. That's why the president's mediocre approval ratings look sky-high compared to the voters' view of Congress (about 6 percent of Americans think they're doing a "good" job, according to Rasmussen Reports). And it's why hardly anyone believes that rational economic policy is going to escape the black hole of Washington gridlock any time soon.