Has Obama ‘Gotten It’ in Time?

The nation wants a business-friendly pep talk, not austerity plans. Whether the President can deliver before November is in question

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Luke Sharrett / The New York Times-Pool / Getty Images

President Obama at the G-8 Summit at Camp David on May 19, 2012

It was a headline long in coming. On the front page of the New York Times on Sunday, accompanying a story datelined Camp David, Maryland, there was a clear signal that President Obama recognizes the great political and cultural realities of the nation he leads. “World Leaders Urge Growth, Not Austerity,” wrote the editors of the Times.

Fairly or not, the Obama Administration from the beginning has been seen as isolated from, or even hostile to, the needs and interests of business. One of the most persistent and oft-repeated remarks by American business officials (usually made in private settings) is that Obama “doesn’t get the private sector” and that fears of unexpected regulation or ultimately higher taxes have stymied the recovery from the financial calamity of 2008.

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To shift the conversation from one of cutting back (never popular; ask President Carter) to one of growing ourselves out of a tight spot (always popular; ask Presidents Reagan or Clinton) is an important psychological step for the President and for the country. Economics is a little like political science: a clinical effort to explain the finally unexplainable multiplicity of human fears and hopes. The restoration of confidence in the capacity of government and of the markets to create jobs and thus bolster the embattled American middle class is perhaps the President’s central task, and it may be that he has at last reached a place where he can assuage some of the broad anxieties that have driven our national life for more than four years now.

For the anxieties are surely there. The public climate remains uncertain and gloomy. “Perhaps the broadest indicator of the public’s mood comes from Gallup’s satisfaction measure, which asks Americans if they are satisfied or dissatisfied with ‘the way things are going in the United States at this time,’ ” Gallup analysts wrote last week. “The 24% of Americans currently satisfied is most similar to the 20% recorded in May 1992 during George H.W. Bush’s first and only term. Bush was also the only sitting president of the last four to lose his re-election bid. By contrast, satisfaction was above 35% in May of 1996 and 2004, in advance of Bill Clinton’s and George W. Bush’s re-elections. And it was 48% in September 1984, the closest time period Gallup has to May of Ronald Reagan’s re-election year.”

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Growth, not austerity; hope, not fear; strength, not weakness: great politicians from Thomas Jefferson to Bill Clinton have spoken the language of American optimism, projecting a sense that the nation’s best days lie ahead. There is, to be sure, a good deal of razzle-dazzle in the craft of politics. But all the sober assessments of what we must do to preserve our strength by putting our fiscal house in order — what sacrifices we must inevitably make — will remain the stuff of policy white papers and blue-ribbon-commission PDFs unless a political leader can create a climate in which sacrifice seems to be an act of reinvigoration rather than a grim hour of retrenchment.

And if the New York Times got it right, this may well be the beginning of a summer of hope — and we haven’t had one of those in quite a while.

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