"What have you done for me lately?" It's a question that voters implicitly ask politicians, especially ones they have supported and who are seeking their votes again. And it's a question that young voters in particular may be asking Barack Obama, whom they supported by a 66 percent to 32 percent margin 13 months ago.
It's a question that is obviously on the minds of some thoughtful Democrats. They've noticed that unemployment among the young is well above the national average -- it reached 27.6 percent among those ages 16 to 19 in October.
They've noticed that an increasing number of young people -- about half of those between ages 18 and 24 -- are still living in their parents' homes. They've noticed that entry-level work is scarce, as older workers cling to their jobs.
So they're urging the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress to do something to help young people. But they seem to be having a hard time coming up with solutions that match the scope of the problem.
For example, John Podesta, chief of staff in the Clinton White House and head of the Center for American Progress, urges in Politico that Congress make a "strategic investment" in expanding AmeriCorps, Volunteers in Service to America and Youth Corps.
He argues forcefully that these programs help communities and provide valuable work experience for those enrolled. He says the expansion he proposes would cost less than $1.5 billion -- small change in today's Washington.
But he's only proposing to create 150,000 jobs, a drop in the bucket when something like 3,000,000 Americans under 30 are unemployed.
Morley Winograd and Michael Hais, co-authors of the insightful "Millennial Makeover," also want government to do more for young people. Writing on the newgeography.com Website, they endorse proposals for creating internships, loan forgiveness programs and "mission critical" jobs in such fields as health care, cyber-security and the environment. Plus, "increased entrepreneurial resources (should) be made available to youth."
All that sounds kind of nifty, but it leaves many questions unanswered, starting with the price tag -- and whether government can readily create work that is useful in the real world. The experience of the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) program, put out of its misery in the recession year of 1982, is not encouraging.
Neither is the precedent of the New Deal jobs programs of the 1930s. Then, talented administrators like Harry Hopkins employed millions in a matter of months. But that would be impossible with the encumbrances of today's civil service, due process, civil rights and environmental rules, even if Barack Obama could find someone as able as Hopkins.
The uncomfortable reality is that creating many millions of useful, interesting, psychically rewarding new jobs is something only the private sector can do. And it does it, as we saw during the prosperous quarter-century from 1983 to 2007, in ways that government planners are unable to predict.
In the meantime, the big-government policies of the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress have worked to stifle private-sector job creation. A large share of the $787 billion stimulus package has gone to keep current state and local public sector employees on the payroll (and paying union dues). That does nothing for young people seeking work.
In addition, the Democrats' health care bills would raise the cost of health insurance for young Americans, who would in effect be subsidizing their elders. And the staggering federal deficits that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, loom as far as the eye can see will mean more national debt that young Americans will have to pay off.
Barack Obama in his autobiographies records how he spurned private-sector work and opted instead for community organizing and political office. Public-sector careers can provide good incomes and the satisfaction of doing useful work -- but only for a comparative few. A vibrant and competent public sector depends on a vibrant and competent, and much larger, private sector.
Encouraging the growth of the private sector did not seem to be a problem when Obama began his campaign in February 2007, when unemployment was at 4.5 percent. It is certainly a problem now, with unemployment at 10.2 percent. Thoughtful Democrats can see that their party has not done much lately for the young voters, who provided 80 percent of their victory margin in 2008. But they're having trouble figuring out what to do.
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