Why The Left Is Questioning Its Hero

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Much has been made by the national media and the markets about the emergence from our desiccated economic soil of what President Obama has called “green shoots.” But although the economy may already be slowly regenerating (largely due to its natural resiliency), we need to question whether these fledglings will grow into healthy plants or a crop of crabgrass.

The political right has made many negative assessments of the president’s approach, decrying the administration’s huge jump in deficit spending and penchant for ever more expansive regulatory control of the economy. Polling data by both The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal shows some growing unease about both the expanding federal role in the economy and the growing mountain of debt.

But this conservative critique, which includes sometimes shrill accusations of nascent “socialism,” isn’t the most important counter to Obamanomics. Perhaps more on point – and politically risky for the administration – are criticisms coming from his supposed bedfellows further to the left.

One recent example comes from a new report issued by my old colleagues at the liberal-leaning New America Foundation called “Not Out of the Woods: A Report on the Jobless Recovery Underway.” It amounts to a blistering, if largely unintentional, critique of the administration’s policies, providing a sobering antidote to manufactured euphoria peddled by both presidential spin-meisters and some Wall Streeters.

The report baldly asserts that the president’s programs are simply not sufficient to make up for a “huge job creation deficit” that is getting worse by the day. It estimates the country needs to generate 125,000 or more new jobs a month just to keep pace with population growth – something few see happening for at least several years.

Even with little immediate hope for such employment gains, the report does cite government and private-sector projections of upward of 10% unemployment well into next year. More worrisome still, the authors assert that the administration’s current program is unlikely to create a return to a “normal” level of joblessness – to between 4% and 5% – until after the president’s first term.

The New America report then goes on to make some even scarier observations. It claims unemployment rates are far higher in reality than official statistics reveal, citing calculations by Chairman of New America’s Economic Growth Program Leo Hindery of what they call “effective unemployment.” This also includes the millions now working part-time but seeking “full-time and productive work.”

Hindery is no conservative. He was an adviser to John Edwards and, more recently, to the president himself. Yet his prognosis is grimmer than the ones offered by most right-wingers. He calculates that the real unemployment rate in the country last month was not 9.3%, which is the figure that was reported, but rather closer to an alarming 16.8%. By that measure, more than 30 million people are effectively out of work. That’s nearly one-fifth of the labor force.

Given current economic policies, the report suggests, we can expect “a six-year recovery for what has been to date only a year-and-a-half recession.” Hiring by government and green industries are clearly not going to make up for the massive losses in productive sectors like manufacturing, business services, energy and agriculture.

Against this grim background, the president’s program seems inadequate and even chimerical. To be sure, the massive bailout of institutions such as the big banks – as well as Chrysler and General Motors – has provided some reassurance to Wall Street that paper assets may continue their recent upward climb.

Yet that will do precious little to make a dent in unemployment elsewhere in the economy. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, chief economic guru Larry Summers and others might see “green shoots” for investors, but those could turn out to be more like crabgrass for the rest of us.

In fact, finance is surviving the recession remarkably unscathed. Just compare the numbers. Since 2007, manufacturing (and other blue-collar-dominated sectors) lost 13% of its employment, while construction payrolls have plunged over 16%. Meanwhile, finance, the industry arguably most responsible for the economic meltdown, has dropped a mere 5% of its jobs. Today unemployment in the financial sector stands at less than 5%, compared with nearly 20% in construction and over 12% for manufacturing.

So as hundreds of thousands of construction and factory workers are being sacrificed, many grandees of finance – like top executives of Bank of America and Citigroup – remain in their plush perches. Even proven financial demolition experts like Mark Walsh, who led Lehman Brothers’ disastrous march into toxic properties, are now being paid to clean up the mess they so brilliantly created.

No wonder some factions of the left are becoming uneasy with their hero. Some privately admit that the administration – despite its pro-middle class rhetoric – has adopted an economic program that makes Ronald Reagan seem like the vox populi. One wonders how they will react later this year, when continued high unemployment meets massive, perhaps even record, Wall Street bonuses.

This state of affairs, as the New America report correctly suggests, does not lead us down a path toward “a strong and sustained recovery.” Clearly, we need something more. For one thing, the country needs to reassert its ability to produce more of what it consumes. (See Joel Kotkin’s earlier column, “We Must Remember Manufacturing.”)

Others on the left are also making this point, perhaps none more effectively than an article in the Nation called “The Case for Kenosha.” The piece, in short, skewers the Obama administration’s manhandling the auto industry and manufacturing sectors. It accuses Obama of taking the old industrial belt on a “wild ride” that will lead to more plant shutdowns and increased outsourcing to foreign factories. “With ‘fixes’ like these,” the article states, “it’s hard to imagine how Obama plans to fulfill his campaign promise to ‘revive and strengthen all of American manufacturing.'”

This is not to say that the entire left side of the political spectrum opposes the administration’s economic policy. There is now more than one left in this country, and the gaps between these lefts are every bit as wide as those between, say, small-government libertarians, social conservatives and messianic global interventionists.

To date, the administration has listed toward the agenda of what may be best described as the left’s gentry wing. These include activists at universities, urban planners and liberal nonprofits, many of whom see in Obama’s pro-green policies and multicultural agenda the fulfillment of their long-time fantasies.

This, at times, puts them at odds with large parts of the middle- and working-class base of the Democratic Party. The administration’s plans to”coerce” people out of their cars for the alleged good of the environment probably does not offer much “hope” for those working at auto plants. Highly dependent as they are on stocks and asset inflation for their income, the gentry are not likely to object to the administration’s coddling of large financial institutions.

Then there is the party’s populist contingent, whose inspiration comes more from FDR and Harry Truman than from the likes of Barney Frank and Nancy Pelosi. They are less likely to see much of a difference between a Timothy Geithner or a Hank Paulson. To them, the two Treasury secretaries have both been useful servants for the nation’s “economic royalists.”

Of course, most conservatives might despair over the populists’ tendency to embrace statist solutions to our economic problems. But would-be inheritors of the Reaganite mantle should at least sympathize with their goal to restore broad-based upward mobility and close-to-full employment. Indeed, if the Republican Party figures out how to take command of the issues like job creation and social mobility, they could even become relevant once again.

Right now, though, critiques from the left may be more effective than yammering from the still-clueless right. The president knows that talk of green shoots makes people and markets feel better. But unless those shoots show some staying power, the long-term economic consequences – and ultimately political ones, too, for the president and his party – could prove unwelcome indeed.

This article originally appeared at Forbes.