Running Away From Reality: Obama's Road Trip to Israel

Donald Lambro

3/22/2013 12:01:00 AM - Donald Lambro

President Obama's job approval polls have dropped to 46 percent and the Fed says the jobless rate will remain high for the next two years, so it was time for a road trip.

When things are going badly at home, presidents often go abroad to shift the focus away from their failures, so the president left the country this week for what was seen in the press as a symbolic, ceremonial visit to the Middle East to repair frayed relations with Israel.

Obama joked he was "getting away from Congress" by visiting the Holy Land. And the Associated Press said he "planned to visit several cultural and religious sites aimed at showing his understanding of the deep and ancient connections between the Jewish people and the land that is now Israel."

But in many respects this was also a diplomatic mission to improve relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, reinforce the U.S. alliance with Israel, and to renew the U.S. warning to Iran to turn away from its plans to build a nuclear weapon.

Netanyahu and Obama had publicly wrestled during the president's first term over how to deal with Iran and the attacks from Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Obama still thinks Iran can be deterred through diplomacy and the sanctions. The Israelis believe it will require a punishing preemptive military strike to knock out their nuclear material facilities.

Both sides now agree that the Iranians are a year away from building a nuclear weapon capable of striking Israel.

At the same, however, the trip reminded observers that the Obama administration had precipitously abandoned any pretense of restarting the Middle East peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

Obama gave the possibility of a new peace agreement plenty of lip service over the course of his visit, but the fact is it had pushed to the back burner by the administration and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who gave it the cold shoulder.

Meantime, a long line of Obama's economic, fiscal and political troubles were backing up here at home.

If anyone thinks the president's economic policies are going to significantly improve the unemployment situation in his second term, the Federal Reserve's top economic analysts disabused them of that hope this week.

In their economic forecast Wednesday, Fed economists said the jobless rate will remain high for at least two more years. It sees the national unemployment rate, now at 7.7 percent, dropping to around 7.5 percent by year's end.

They also forecast that the unemployment rate will be between 6.7 percent and 7 percent by the end of 2014, at best. But the Labor Department reported Thursday that first time claims for unemployment benefits rose last week by a couple of thousand of jobless workers to 336,000 people. Maybe they'd better recheck their numbers.

For all of Obama's Hoover-like promises that a strong recovery is just around the corner, the job market remains as weak as it was throughout his first term, with 12 million Americans out of work. The unemployment rate among returning combat veterans was 9.4 percent in February. It is well over 14 percent when underemployed workers who need full-time jobs are added to the numbers.

A new Pew Research Center study released last week found "a big spike" in the number of working mothers, up to nearly 40 percent, who said they needed full-time jobs to make ends meet for their family.

The Fed threw cold water on the hope that four years of snail's pace economic growth (it was virtually zero in the last three months of 2012) would accelerate in Obama's second term.

Fed economists said the Obama economy will grow -- crawl may be a more accurate word -- by as little as 2.3 percent this year, or no higher than 2.8 percent. That is far too weak to drive down the unemployment rate anytime soon. Economic growth could rise to around 3 percent in 2014, but there have been predictions of that sub-par level before that have not had staying power.

There also are disturbing reports that millions of older working Americans are facing a retirement crisis in this economy. The Employee Benefits Research Institute, which monitors pension data, reported this week that the number of Americans who are saving for their retirement has plunged from 75 percent to 66 percent.

One third said they were saving nothing because they were no longer employed in this economy where good paying jobs were in short-supply.

Obama's joke about "getting away from Congress" may backfire on him when someone steps forward to remind him of his State of the Union speech urging lawmakers to get to work on his agenda. He didn't say I may not be here to help push my proposals to a vote.

But even if Obama were here, it wouldn't have changed what happened to his gun control bill on Tuesday. That's when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced the bill's assault-weapons ban was politically dead -- dealing the AWOL president an embarrassing defeat.

A number of Democrats, up for re-election in 2014, were uncomfortable with the assault weapons bill that Judiciary Chairman Dianne Feinstein got through her committee. So this means the Democratic-run Senate will likely take up a far less controversial, stripped-down bill when it returns from a two-week recess.

Yet on another front, a major budget hurdle was cleared this week that locked in the $85 billion in budget sequester spending cuts for the rest of this year that Obama wanted to repeal.

The Senate Wednesday approved a budget bill for the remaining five months in this fiscal year, averting a federal government shutdown that was set to occur next week. It is expected to win easy approval in the Republican House.

This means the focus shifts entirely to the 2014 budget battle and two very different spending plans. The House GOP budget plan cuts spending, balances the budget and reforms entitlements. The Democrats' plan in the Senate makes relatively few spending cuts, but calls for $1.5 trillion in new taxes over 10 years.

That's the heavyweight budget battle that needs to be fought and will play itself out over the course of this year. Whatever the outcome, one thing is certain: Republicans in the House are not going to give Obama any more new revenue in higher tax rates. That book is closed.