Last night on the nightly news, heart-breaking pictures of the Atlanta job fair sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus showed long lines of thousands of job seekers standing for hours in the heat, eager for a small chance at landing a paycheck, any paycheck. That video was followed immediately by shots of the president arriving on Martha's Vineyard for vacation yesterday afternoon. White House correspondents along for the ride reported from the scene with a harbor full of moored yachts bobbing in the background. Pretty much a PR nightmare.
Don't get me wrong—there's nothing wrong with the president spending time with his wife and children—but with yesterday's panic selling in the stock market after a week of volatile ups and downs, news yesterday that jobless claims are up, and fears about the European debt crisis and now a second U.S. recession ... maybe Martha's Vineyard wasn't the best idea. [See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]
Going to the beautiful, secluded, wealthy island was the political equivalent of saying "let them eat cake," or in this case, lobster. Earlier this week—even as the Gallup organization announced that a record-low number of Americans (26 percent) approve of the way President Obama is handling the economy—the White House put out statistics about the numbers of vacation days previous presidents had taken. Every president takes vacations, the line went, and this one is no different. With today's technology, he can still be plugged in. True enough. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]
But previous presidents didn't take those vacations while Americans pulled $23.5 billion out of their 401(k) plans—in just the first ten days of this month. For the first time in my lifetime, the thought of putting cash under the mattress doesn't seem so crazy. In our house, the grandparents have started calling at night, worried about their retirement funds. There's so much uncertainty and fear. [See ups and downs of presidential vacations.]
So many times in life, fear comes when there is a lack of clarity. Not only can we not predict what's going to happen with our economy, there doesn't seem to be a plan. When the headline "Breaking News: Obama to Give Jobs Speech in September" crawled across the TV screen as he headed to the Vineyard, I laughed out loud. [Vote now: Will Obama be a one-term president?]
Here comes another speech sold as a "plan"—believe me, as a speechwriter, I'm all in favor of speeches—but the CBO cannot score a speech. We need legislative proposals to reform entitlements, overhaul the tax code to lower rates, and enact serious spending restraints. And we need them now, not in September. [See editorial cartoons about President Obama.]
President Obama had an opportunity this week, one he didn't take. Instead, he attacked Congressional Republicans who have gone on the record and voted in favor of overhauling entitlements, closing corporate loopholes, and cutting spending—at great risk to their own political futures—as people who have put politics before the good of the country. And then he left for a luxury vacation. Now he faces a firestorm of criticism from all sides, further cementing the growing impression that his is an insulated, ivory-tower life spent far away from the maddening crowds. He blew it.