(The Root) — Have you ever had one of those moments when, the second you finish answering a question, you realize, “Oh, crap, I’m going to pay for that one”? I have. The tough part, particularly in a hypercharged political environment, is cleaning it up (or, as we like to say in Washington, “walking back your remarks”) before your words take on a life of their own.
Such a moment occurred for President Obama when he uttered the words, “The private sector is doing fine.”
To make matters worse (or at least more difficult to walk back), within hours of the president’s declaration, the credit firm Standard & Poor’s warned that our nation’s economic outlook remains negative, and therefore the long-term credit rating of the United States will remain an AA+, which ranks us on a par with Belgium.
That announcement is a cold reminder of Aug. 5, 2011. History books will record it as the day the global economic position of the United States was diminished as S&P declared U.S. Treasury debt no longer to be one of the safest investments in the world.
The Wall Street Journal noted at the time that if the United States were a public company, the credit agencies would have declared a “no-buy or sell” stipulation because of the massive federal spending and borrowing over the past decade (and the failure of both political parties in Congress to control spending in recent years).
Americans are rightly upset, especially with the early-June report showing that the U.S. jobless rate increased in May from 8.1 percent to 8.2 percent amid a string of other bad economic news. Unemployment has been above 8 percent for more than 20 months, and the underemployment rate is far higher (the private sector is still 4.5 million jobs below its 2008 level). Furthermore, there are millions (pdf) estimated to have simply given up trying to find work in the private or public sector.
When President Obama was pressed to explain what he meant by his now controversial and implausible statement, he attempted to argue that the private sector wasn’t holding back the economy. He said it was the public sector. Then, later in that same press conference, he still claimed, “We’ve actually seen some good momentum in the private sector,” but later finally admitted, “It’s absolutely clear the economy is not doing fine.”
Of course, as the nation just witnessed in Wisconsin and California (where voters in San Diego and San Jose voted 66 and 69 percent respectively to cut back public-employee pensions), showering more money as a “stimulus” onto the public sector is less popular with taxpayers than asking them for some shared sacrifice.
So with our 2012 presidential campaign now shifting into higher gear, the national debate must focus on solutions that get us from where we are to a more secure economic future.