Demonstrating once again that a sound bite is worth 10,000 words, President Barack Obama has been raked over the coals in recent days for what amounted to a six-word aside: "The private sector is doing fine." He said it a press conference last Friday in the context of how the economy is recovering, and how jobs are being created overall but certain segments (housing, construction, teachers, police and firefighters) are not performing as well.
Never mind that he later in the day clarified his remark to note that the economy is "not doing fine" or that Mitt Romney subsequently made his own gaffe — responding to President Obama by saying the country does not need more police, firefighters or teachers. Somehow, Mr. Obama's failure to be sufficiently downbeat about the private sector was all the buzz, at least inside the Beltway.
But if Mr. Obama made a mistake, it was not a lack of pessimism but a failure to be sufficiently encouraging. While recent economic indicators have been subpar, the overall recovery is doing remarkably well considering the European Union's continuing debt crisis and the failure of the current Congress to approve the president's jobs program.
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The numbers tell the story. For more than two years, the private sector has been hiring more workers — 4.3 million new jobs altogether. That the unemployment rate remains relatively high is primarily a result of the depth of the recession the White House inherited. It simply takes time to recover from the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression.
But even with the disappointing monthly jobs report and the apparent slowing of the economy, May marked the 27th straight month of growth in the private sector. It's the public sector that's lagging these days, but apparently those are jobs that don't count in the eyes of the Republicans.
This need to see the U.S. economy in the most dire of circumstances — to insist that all be seen through the prism of melancholia and despair — is something the GOP seems to wrap itself around like Linus holding his favorite blanket. There's a name for a national leader who insists on such a morose world view: Jimmy Carter.
It's an outlook that President Obama should not allow himself to share. At some point, despair is a self-fulfilling prophecy. To the extent that the public outlook affects the economy, such doom-and-gloom can deter investment, leave badly-needed capital on the sidelines and reduce demand for products and services by panicked consumers.
During the last comparable situation in our nation's history, you didn't see Franklin D. Roosevelt repeatedly reminding the public that things were terrible. No, he not only offered comfort and optimism but expected public investment in the labor market, too. "The only limits of our realization of tomorrow are our doubts of today," he famously said.
No doubt there will be a lot of "gotcha" moments, sentence fragments taken out of context, and used to build an unflattering view of the candidates between now and November. It's hard to believe the election will turn on those particular six words.
But it's not a phrase that Mr. Obama should run and hide from. Instead, it reflects a point — the recovery is gradually moving forward — that he should press harder. The public needs to understand the reality of their circumstances, including the favorable trends, if only to offset the ceaseless malaise coming out of the GOP and its standard-bearer.
The auto industry has improved miraculously since the Big 3 were teetering on the brink. Interest rates are at record lows, which is helping those who can refinance their homes. Even the housing outlook appears somewhat brighter — with few predicting further declines in home values nationwide. Growth may be slow, but it's still growth.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan didn't run on a platform of doom and gloom but on the nation's limitless potential. The public still wants a president who believes in the American dream. Doing fine? Yes, we are. Capable of doing better? Absolutely. A president doesn't inspire his countrymen by wearing sack cloth and ashes and wringing his hands when times are not perfect but by celebrating what Americans have achieved and encouraging them to do even better.