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Working In These Times

Thursday, Aug 12, 2010, 2:07 pm

As Netroots Rage at Gibbs, Long-Term Jobless Left Behind

BY Art Levine

"I have both my feet firmly planted on the floor and nothing in my mouth, to speak of," Gibbs told reporters on August 11, and stuck out his tongue to prove it.   (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Amid the anger among progressives over White House spokesman Robert Gibbs' attack on the"professional left," a leading cause of the wide-ranging disenchantment with President Obama that threatens Democrats in November remains untouched: long-term joblessness. The new, scaled-down legislation signed by Obama yesterday to save teachers' jobs and help states pay for Medicaid won't help the nearly 30 million unemployed or under-employed to find work. And it's paid for, in part, by cutting $12 billion in food stamps benefits. 

On Wednesday, a troubling new report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) underscored the weakness in the economy -- and in the hopes of Democrats to retain Congress and the White House. The report by Heidi Shierholz looked closely at the five to one ratio of officially counted unemployed workers to available jobs, and pointed out in an especially clear way: "The 5-to-1 ratio means that there is literally only one job opening for every five unemployed workers (that is, for every four out of five unemployed workers there simply are no jobs)," she declared (emphasis added).

She also clarified a common misunderstanding that this figure means that there are only five applicants for any one job. That's hardly the case, as shown by news stories of hundreds of people waiting in line for  days for a chance to apply for a single union elevator operator job. "Importantly, this [five-to -one] ratio does not measure the number of applicants for each job. There may be throngs of applicants for every job posting, since job seekers apply for multiple jobs," she noted.

She also explained on Bloomberg News the continuing double-digit unemployment in the District of Columbia and 16 states, devastated by the collapse of the housing market and the downturn in manufacturing.  As EPI's interactive state economy tracker reports, "New state unemployment data show that while jobs are returning, the pace of recovery remains slow. The June unemployment rate was 14.2% in Nevada, 13.2% in Michigan, 12.3% in California and 11.4% in Florida."

Despite such figures, the "99ers," whose benefits have expired are fruitlessly seeking help from Congress as half of the unemployed have been out of work for over six months. This persistent unemployment – even if it would have been worse under GOP policies – accounts in part for the lack of enthusiasm for the Obama administration among progressives. Another major disincentive to work hard for Democrats in November: what they see as a lack of White House willingness to fight for a genuine progressive agenda, ceding too much to right-wing talking points and Wall Street. But Gibbs' Fox-style attacks on the left as drug-takers pining for a fantasy world without the Pentagon and with a Canada-type health plan are simply smears on the progressive base. Remember, it's those activists who propelled Obama into office and, as with health care, in most cases reluctantly accepted his centrist deal-making in office. 

Jane Hamsher didn't go along with those compromises, but her concerns about the White House's open hostility to the Democratic base are widely shared, as ABC News reported:

Jane Hamsher, the founder of the liberal blog Firedoglake.com, told us that Gibbs’ swipe reflects a White House that’s taken the left for granted – inattention that she said could hurt Democratic candidates in 2010 and beyond.

“It went over like a lead balloon – particularly in August when all the members of Congress are back in their home states, campaigning, trying to whip up enthusiasm,” Hamsher told us. “We're seeing tremendous demoralization amongst the sort of Democratic base.   

“Having the White House and [Gibbs] basically call the progressives a big bunch of babies who need to grow up, you know, when their concerns are very valid, probably wasn't the sharpest political move,” she added.

Columnist Frank Rich argued in yet another trenchant column on Sunday just how much Democrats were threatened by the plight of long-term unemployed workers – and that concern comes from more than just the so-called whining of the "professional left" that Gibbs scorns. Rich points to to the case of a former corporate staffer, 49-year-old Alexandra Jarrin, $92,000 in debt and on the verge of homelessness featured in a Times article on the 99ers.

The polls remain as intractable as the 9.5 percent unemployment rate no matter how insistently the Democrats pummel Bush. To add to Democratic panic, there’s their “enthusiasm gap” with the Tea-Party-infused G.O.P., and the Rangel-Waters double bill coming this fall to a cable channel near you. Some Democrats took solace in one recent poll finding that if Republican economic ideas were branded as “Bush” ideas, the pendulum would swing a whopping 49 percentage points in their favor. But even in that feel-good survey, only a quarter of the respondents were worried that a G.O.P. Congress would actually bring back Bush policies...

But even if the Democrats sharpen their attack, they are doomed to fall short if they don’t address the cancer in the American heart — joblessness. This requires stunning emergency action right now, August recess be damned. Instead we get the Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, offering the thin statistical gruel that job growth has returned “at an earlier stage of this recovery than in the last two recoveries...”

The Democrats have already retreated from immigration and energy reform. If they can’t make the case to Americans like Alexandra Jarrin that they offer more hope for a job than a radical conservative movement poised to tear down what remains of the safety net, they deserve to lose.

Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate.com, Salon.com and numerous other publications.

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