Congress is gridlocked. For nearly two months, Republicans blocked an extension of unemployment benefits, a basic recovery measure. They are still holding up a bill to spur more lending to small businesses.
In a much-anticipated speech on Friday, Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, reiterated his vow to do more to boost the economy if conditions worsened. He did not seem particularly convinced that anything the Fed could do would be enough.
The question then is whether Mr. Obama will lead. He cannot force Congress to act, but he could pre-empt Republicans’ diatribes — on the deficit, on small business, on taxes — with tough truths and a big mission that would tie together the strategies and the sacrifices that will be needed to put the economy right.
First, he needs to keep driving home that he is committed to addressing the deficit, and that he will call for widespread sacrifice to do so — starting with letting the Bush tax cuts for the richest Americans expire at year end. Mr. Obama must tell Americans that claims from Republican leaders that the country can both cut taxes and tackle the deficit are absurd and cynical.
Next, he needs to explain why too much sacrifice, too soon, especially from the middle class, would do more harm than good while the economy is weak. More government support is needed until conditions improve.
Mr. Obama also needs to inspire Americans who have been ground down by the economic crisis and Washington’s small-bore sniping. He needs to rally the nation around a big idea — a project that is worth sacrificing for, worth paying for, worth working for. One that lets them know that there is more ahead than just a return to a status quo of lopsided growth in which corporate profits surge while jobs and incomes lag.
That mission could be the “21st century infrastructure,” that Mr. Obama mentioned on a multi-city trip this month, “not just roads and bridges, but faster Internet access and high-speed rail.” It could be energy independence, with high-tech green jobs and a real chance for addressing global warming. Either of the above would make sense, economically and politically.
Mr. Obama and his economic team had clearly hoped for an economic rebound in time for the midterm elections. They are not going to get it. The economic damage they inherited was too deep, and the economic stimulus they pushed through Congress, for all of the fight, was too small. Standing back is not doing the country or his party any good. We believe Americans are ready for hard truths and big ideas."