Why Obama’s “gaffe” wasn’t a phony story

Mickey Kaus Columnist
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Sophisticated commentators are treating today’s Obama misstatement (“[T]he private sector is doing fine”) as a damaging but substantively insignificant gaffe of the sort that could happen to anyone (and get blown up by the decontextualizing, Web-driven press). Here’s Slate‘s John Dickerson:

[T]he president’s “gaffe” points out something Romney knows well: The modern campaign news cycle doesn’t allow candidates to say complex or risky things. Bold policies—even boldy conservative policies—have to be explained; and explaining requires a sympathetic audience willing to at least consider the meaning of adjoining sentences, not merely judge you for what you say in a single sentence.

Are we sure Obama’s mistake was innocent if you consider the meaning of the adjoining sentences? Here’s the statement with those sentences attached:

Q What about the Republicans saying that you’re blaming the Europeans for the failures of your own policies?

THE PRESIDENT: The truth of the matter is that, as I said, we’ve created 4.3 million jobs over the last 27 months, over 800,000 just this year alone. The private sector is doing fine. Where we’re seeing weaknesses in our economy have to do with state and local government — oftentimes, cuts initiated by governors or mayors who are not getting the kind of help that they have in the past from the federal government and who don’t have the same kind of flexibility as the federal government in dealing with fewer revenues coming in.

And so, if Republicans want to be helpful, if they really want to move forward and put people back to work, what they should be thinking about is, how do we help state and local governments and how do we help the construction industry. Because the recipes that they’re promoting are basically the kinds of policies that would add weakness to the economy, would result in further layoffs, would not provide relief in the housing market, and would result, I think most economists estimate, in lower growth and fewer jobs, not more.

The problem is the public jobs part, not Obama’s “private sector” characterization (which seems like ordinary misspeaking). There are at least two ways to read it: 1) As a Keynesian, Obama’s arguing that if state and local governments could stop laying people off for a while it would have a salutary effect on the economy by boosting demand, the same way tax cuts or public works projects or unemployment benefits boost demand; or 2) Public jobs are equivalent to private jobs, including housing jobs. In a healthy economy we have lots of private jobs, lots of housing jobs, and lots of goverment jobs. They’re all good!

Obama clearly means #1–he’s proposed $35 billion in subsidies to help states rehire “teachers and cops and firefighters,” with a fairly explicit Keynesian rationale. But does he also mean #2? There’s nothing in his press conference to suggest he doesn’t, and lots to suggest he does–the parallelism with the construction industry, for example, in which goverment jobs are treated as just another “sector” in which more employment is better.

The problem is that many voters (myself included) don’t think government jobs are just another sector. We want the number of housing and manufacturing jobs to keep growing–the more the merrier, all things being equal. We don’t want the number government jobs to keep growing, in part because we pay for them without the assurances, offered in a competitive private economy, that we’re getting our money’s worth or that the jobs are necessary at all.  It’s one thing to boost government jobs as a temporary stimulus measure. It’s another thing to never let federal, state and local governments shrink to a more sustainable size.

Even Obama has made noises about cutting the size of the government bureaucracy–the foundation, at the federal level, of Washington’s disconnected high life. Does he not mean it? If that’s supposed to happen, when? It clearly can’t happen when the country’s in recession, according to the president–which is why his original 2009 stimulus bill sought to preserve state and local government jobs. Now he’s telling us it can’t happen when the economy is recovering and the private sector is doing fine growing at a modest pace. Is he really going to want to cut unneeded government jobs later, when the private sector really is “doing fine” and there’s lots of tax revenue to fund the fat-marbled government payroll? Why would he do that, if he sees government jobs as jobs, a good thing, equivalent to private jobs? That he doesn’t say when he’d cut the jobs only reinforces the suspicion that he doesn’t want to cut them at all, ever.

That’s the legitimate fear Obama’s “gaffe” raises, anyway. It’s not aphony media-made story. It gets at a pretty fundamental point.

P.S.: The latest Left Coast/Right Coast podcast discusses the gaffe at greater length, with heavier breathing.

Mickey Kaus