Summit for the jobless recovery

Today, our ongoing discussion about what’s gone wrong with presidential leadership focuses on what we all seem to agree is America’s No. 1 problem: jobs.

Or, more precisely, America’s jobless economic recovery.

All of us who hailed the 2008 election for its promise of hope and change must now, as we approach the second Labor Day of what has been a virtually jobless Obama presidency, ask ourselves: What moment or event can we see in our mind’s eye that stands out as President Barack Obama’s most significant leadership action in our jobs crisis?

Take your time. Frankly, while I’m sure they exist, I can’t conjure up a single scene that was memorable because the president was clearly focusing his impressive intellect and resources at solving our jobs crisis. And, I can’t name one individual who’s Obama’s person in charge of creating jobs.

So, today we will suggest one potentially memorable leadership move Obama should take to aid our jobs crisis. But first, a pre-Labor Day quiz.

Question: What is the name of Obama’s secretary of labor? (Don’t despair. Few Washington pundits know, either. So, to make it easier, we’ll make it multiple choice.)

Question: The name of Obama’s secretary of labor is: a) Linda Sanchez; b) Frances Perkins; c) Loretta Sanchez; d) Hilda Solis; e) Elaine Chao.

Still stuck? Not to worry. You aren’t the problem. The Obama White House went two years into our no-jobs crisis without making sure you know its labor secretary as the 24/7 leader of a presidential crusade to create jobs. Then again, we don’t remember any such crusade.

All we know for sure is that, while the disastrous economy was not of Obama’s making (but was bequeathed by his predecessor), the no-jobs recovery is our crisis. And, it’s our president’s too. So, what can Obama do?

Let’s start by recognizing the parts of the problem a president can affect. In addition to executive orders and enforcing regulations, presidents can help shape a positive economic environment in modest but meaningful ways. A psychology of corporate caution has set in that’s more profound than anything we’ve witnessed, according to a Saturday article stretched across the top of The Washington Post’s front page, under the headline: “The real reason companies aren’t hiring: CEOs opt for caution as Americans keep their wallets closed.”

Corporate profits have bounced back strongly, but corporations and small businesses have not responded by increasing hiring, as in past eras. Corporate executives said they are being so cautious because consumers aren’t spending freely. The CEOs said they don’t know how much their customers will want to buy in the future. So, they are hoarding.

Obama must belatedly begin a presidential campaign in which he risks his reputation by using his persuasiveness leadership to try to shift the psychology that has given us this jobless recovery. He would be wise to empower a trusted enabler — yes, quiz takers, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.

Here’s one way: Let Obama convene an ongoing series of Camp David summits on jobs and economic recovery. Let him meet there with small groups — corporate CEOs, small-business owners and labor leaders, et al. But, Obama must not repeat the mistake he made months ago when he turned a meeting at the Blair House into a live-TV waste of time. When the camera red light goes on, everyone postures (presidents included) and nothing changes.

So, let Obama run it the way President Jimmy Carter did in a rare highlight of his presidency — his Camp David summit with Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin. Let Obama meet separately or jointly with CEOs, et al.; let him work tirelessly and be willing to bend policies in order to bend minds until something positive results. That will only happen if it occurs away from our politicizing eyes. Because, done properly, at times all parties will look inelegant.

Obama must do this not because it’s sure to work, but because it just might. Let him rise to the urgency of our crisis. Do not let him go down as another president who was unwilling to even try.

Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.

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