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What is the White House thinking?


Readers know I try not to spend much time second-guessing political messaging, but I am absolutely baffled by the White House's behavior in the run-up to this jobs report.

Keep in mind that this report was predictable. We knew the census jobs were expiring. We knew the private sector wasn't adding hundreds of thousands of jobs. We knew the top-line number was likely to be negative, and the predictions were that the unemployment rate would edge up to 9.6 percent (it instead remained unchanged at 9.5 percent).

So explain to me why, a few days before a bad jobs report was set to be released, Tim Geithner was in the New York Times with an op-ed entitled "welcome to the recovery?" I could understand seeing him there tomorrow with a piece pointing out the private-sector job growth and noting that the census numbers are distorting a real and enduring recovery. Maybe he could even make a joke about the socialists in the White House who're managing to lose government jobs while the corporate sector posts record profits and adds positions. But instead of having him spin the numbers, they let him get crushed by them.

And why did Christina Romer's resignation break today? It's possible that was ace reporting rather than a scheduled leak by the White House press team, but it sure doesn't look good to have one of the White House's key economic people leave on the day of a bad jobs report. John Boehner, for one, saw the opportunity immediately: "After another disappointing jobs report and the resignation of one of the chief architects of the trillion-dollar ‘stimulus,’ it’s time for President Obama to listen to the American people and face up to the fact that his ‘stimulus’ policies aren’t working," he said.

It's not that any of this really matters in the long sweep of things, but it's an oddly amateurish performance: Geithner's op-ed gets framed by the job numbers rather than the other way around and Romer's will be tied to today's bad jobs report.

Photo credit: Pete Souza/White House.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 6, 2010; 11:13 AM ET
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Maybe Christina Romer gave up because she realized the cowards in the WH are afraid to do what is necessary to get the counrty out of the jobs decline. Her policies didn't fail, they were shouted down by Emmanuel and Summers, remember?

And Timmy is totally tuned to the stock market and the bankers, who are having a great revival.

Good post.

Posted by: Mimikatz | August 6, 2010 11:19 AM | Report abuse

all politicians spin bad news on a Friday afternoon. Someone just got wind of it earlier and let the news break a little sooner than they would have liked.

Posted by: visionbrkr | August 6, 2010 11:24 AM | Report abuse

The title of that Op-Ed was chosen by the New York Times editorial staff, not by Timothy Geithner or Treasury. According to Mike Allen of Politico, Treasury wanted the Op-Ed titled "The Case for the American Economy" and it viewed the title chosen by the New York Times as sarcastic. I don't see anything overly optimistic in the actual text of the Op-Ed. The only thing surprising here is that the Administration was unable to exercise better control over the title assigned by the New York Times.

Posted by: QuiteAlarmed | August 6, 2010 11:29 AM | Report abuse

Ezra, didn't you get that memo that Obama doesn't care about getting a second term?

Posted by: goadri | August 6, 2010 11:46 AM | Report abuse

On this topic, I happen to agree with Klein: I baffled by the course the White House is pursuing. Honestly, there is a real problem if the White House has begun to believe its own spin: propaganda always plays a role in plebeian discourse but that same propaganda can't be allowed to infect leadership behavior.

Deep down, everybody enjoys feel-good words coming out of the Oval Office, even if such words are lies. Likewise, deep down, everybody knows the employment picture is bad, the country is broke, taxes are burdensome, and health care reform has brought tremendous cost without corresponding benefit. The problem comes when the emperor himself fails to realize his own lack of clothes.

Posted by: rmgregory | August 6, 2010 11:46 AM | Report abuse

This administration is sinking fast. They are so over their heads. Romer heading for the exits reminds me of Orzag running for the exit door.

All the numbers look horrible and they are trying to save their reputations. It is amateur hour in the White House.

Posted by: lancediverson | August 6, 2010 11:53 AM | Report abuse

Maybe you are "baffled" because you start with the misguided assumption of a "real and enduring recovery". So, the treasury secretary spins hard in the face of more weak numbers and an economic adviser with little influence jumps ship. The timing of both would seem ill chosen only if you expect things to markedly improve in the near term. If you do not, then the administration constantly spinning regardless of bad econ numbers and advisers moving on seems pretty normal.

Posted by: mrnegative | August 6, 2010 11:53 AM | Report abuse

Isn't chief cheerleader of the US economy one of the hats that the Treasury secretary wears? Seems more noticeable because of the recent focus on financial industry re-regulation. On Romer, probably a Friday in August. The LA Times wrote, "She had called for a larger economic stimulus than the $787-billion package that Obama ultimately embraced. But White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and others feared that if the stimulus were any bigger, it would create a kind of "sticker shock" that would make passage impossible" and "Romer had clashed with Obama's top economic advisor, Lawrence Summers, over her access to the president, though administration officials said she was not leaving because of any personality conflict or policy differences.",0,1138400.story

Posted by: tuber | August 6, 2010 12:01 PM | Report abuse


The title "Welcome to Recovery" was NOT the title that Geithner had written. That was the title that the newspaper gave it.

In terms of Romer, her resignation wasn't suppose to be announced just yet but it was gotten out last night so the White House had to scramble to say that that was true.

I agree that the timing was BAD but it can be explained.

Overall, though the White House needs to tighten their ship.

Perhaps a new crew needs to come on board.

Posted by: maritza1 | August 6, 2010 12:04 PM | Report abuse

Ezra. Open your eyes. They are flailing about in an attempt to cast off blame. They are clueless. They are incompetent. The Emperor has no clothes.

The regime is shedding layers like an onion, but trust me. It stinks to the core!

Posted by: daveredhat | August 6, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

Hey Ezra,

Nice article. I don't think it's hard to figure out what Geithner is thinking. He's a Goldman Sachs guy, and the big banks and investment houses are doing very well right now. Naturally, he associates this with a recovery in his mind, but he forgets about the 99.9% of us who do not happen to work on Wall Street.

It's a very sad commentary on where the priorities lay in this White House (and the previous one.)

Posted by: ShawnDavis1 | August 6, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse


If you start off with the assumption that Obama and crew don't have a clue what they are doing, their actions will make a lot more sense.

Posted by: peterg73 | August 6, 2010 12:29 PM | Report abuse

Looks to me like the rats are abandoning ship.

Posted by: bgmma50 | August 6, 2010 12:51 PM | Report abuse

The Bush administration had the same problem in terms of managing expectations (e.g. Iraq War will be cheap and self-financing).

When it comes to current news releases, OK, you spin and put the best foot forward. But when it comes to managing long-term expectations it's a lot better to overcome pessimistic expectations than to fall short on overly optimistic ones.

Think this is a case of PR people maybe buying their own b.s.. It may also be that the people in the bubble are so far removed from the reality outside that they just can't get their head around what people outside the bubble are experiencing and what kind of expectations they have. The White House and its econ team need to worry a lot less about short-term PR and worry a lot more about long-term credibility.

The worst case here may actually be that it's not just the White House's messaging that's off, but the economic analysis that's informing their message. Maybe they actually believe that victory on the domestic economic front is just around the corner even without a second stimulus.

Posted by: JPRS | August 6, 2010 12:54 PM | Report abuse

While it's one answer to note that the NYT chose the headline for Geithner's op-ed, that doesn't explain why his op-ed ran before, rather than after, the jobs report. Bottom line, he's got to do better than to run a piece in the Times that makes the Administration look bad both from a headline and a timing perspective.

Posted by: simpleton1 | August 6, 2010 1:24 PM | Report abuse

Everywhere you go are signs about projects made possible by the American Recovery and Relief Act. I do not understand why the White House does not make it absolutely clear to everyone that:
1) this is the stimulus, and it put people to work; and
2) the weakening in the jobs outlook is due almost entirely to the expiration of stimulus funding.

Posted by: kttaylor1 | August 6, 2010 1:27 PM | Report abuse

This economy has been slowly failing to serve wage earners for some decades now, due to deindustrialization and offshore outsourcing, as major factors, among some others.

But this hasn't been visible to the high level members of our political elites and meritocracy. They have lived in the sunshine while our prospects have grown dim.

This recession and financial crisis has brought these trends to the tipping point of populist anger and disenchantment.

We can't go back, because we the people are going down. But our elites are so deeply embedded in the status quo that they don't know how to attack it. That would be attacking themselves.

That is why they misjudged the unemployment problem, at the very beginning of the Administration up to now. They have never clued into the economic trends for which our unemployment is the most current and most devastating symptom.

From the point of view of elites, deindustrialization and offshore outsourcing are not problems. They are sources of profit and growth.

From this disconnect arises the fatal flaw of this Administration.

Posted by: mminka | August 6, 2010 1:44 PM | Report abuse

Barack Obama gives 'damn' about jobs...

Rahm & Axel live in a different world and in general this Administration wants to make a history - how Obama gets elected again despite giving 'ding' to jobs of Americans....

Not that history is on their side....

Posted by: umesh409 | August 6, 2010 2:37 PM | Report abuse


It takes time to develop a narrative. If the White House's analysis had been as accurate as that of some economists, they could have started making that message during the first months of the administration and laying the ground work for additional help.

e.g. "we want and need to do more, but GOP obstruction limits are capacity to do what needs to be done; the GOP seems to find more political advantage in sabotaging the economic recovery than in doing what's necessary for the American economy to return to full health." If that's the message you either get movement on the next stimulus and resolve the policy issue, or you have a narrative to use in the next cycle about "GOP economic sabotage".

It's very hard to introduce that kind of narrative a few months before an election.

Posted by: JPRS | August 6, 2010 4:53 PM | Report abuse

Whenever the oval office is photographed in this presidency, it has the most curiously empty look. There's almost nothing on the desk, no sign of work being done. Where is the furniture? It has an unlived in, unworked in look. And those work hours, per Tod Purdum's recent Vanity Fair article. OMG -- the boss comes in at 9:30 a.m.? All presidents in recent memory began 6:45 a.m. latest!

Posted by: truck1 | August 6, 2010 5:44 PM | Report abuse

I don't really care what the White House was thinking. (I assume it's the same thing as usual lately - i.e., "What do the polls say now? Is the entire country telling us to get f---ed yet? No? How about now?")

Without disputing the premise here, I will say I find it odd the extent to which people in Washington are focused on spin right now. Yes, messaging matters. But it doesn't exist in a vacuum. It exists in the context of policymaking failures. The people who bear the brunt of those failures are pissed off. The people responsible for those failures are sitting pretty, and being trotted out to give a big disingenuous middle-finger to the public this administration is utterly failing.

I visited DC within the past year, and I can't emphasize to you people enough how different your atmosphere is from other places. There are at least triple the number of vacant buildings/storefronts around now than I noticed at this time last year. Some of them are-- were, long-standing businesses. There are "for lease" signs everywhere. "Help wanted" signs? Not so much.

Posted by: jes7 | August 6, 2010 6:36 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: mminka | August 6, 2010 1:44 PM |

Excellent post !

I might only add that governance at the speed of the Law is no match for the moral relativism of an Economy. New crimes by the "little people" are promptly identified, while the Gentleman's Crimes take a generations to resolve (and then, in Civil Court).

Posted by: gannon_dick | August 6, 2010 7:02 PM | Report abuse

How can you put lips on a pig? The economic stimulous was, and has been a failure from it's inception. Anyone who has taken the time to read the volumous double peice of legislation could see the largesse waste of taxpayer money. What most people weren't informed about; is the timetable that inevitably lengthened the cash flow to 18 month's down the line , and that was if everyone actually cooperated with implementing the process.

In Washington? , how nieve that these supposed knowledgeable leaders could even remotely predict a positive outcome.
What is even more preposturous is that the lions share of so called FREE MONEY is being put in the hands of the opposing party, who by their own nature; are not predisposed to support any effective measures that would lend to their opposition, as to look even remotely successful. By the way this is called "critical thinking", something George Carlin once said; "is exactly what the goverment does not want of the public to be capable of".

Now that the duress of the withheld economic stimulous has postured the Republican Party into a position of righteous indignation, seemingly hoping that this will benefit their control of the House or Senate in the Fall, is the end game for their reluctence to relieve the American Public . Meanwhile the American Public is left to fend helplessly in the mist of a Great Depression, being ripped to shreads with increased taxes, and mediocre services for whatever their taxes are even paying for.

Romer is just getting out , while the party is over. People of stature,know most of the time when to bail. Unless Obama can convience the Republicans to release the purse strings of the Billions that they control through the Banks ,and remaining Industries within this country. You can count on Man dominating Man to his injury, until the 2012 elections, with the traditional carrot just before election time.

Posted by: graymatter11 | August 6, 2010 7:14 PM | Report abuse

In the words of my mother: "He would tell a lie when the truth would've served the purpose better" and "he can't keep his lies straight."

Liars, all liars, in this administration and in the Democratic party. America has witnessed orchestrated organized our nation's capital.

Posted by: joesmithdefend | August 6, 2010 11:25 PM | Report abuse

You're whining Klein ... another liberal trait when they can't dispute the facts. Just sit back and enjoy The Recovery Summer. The Fall might be a lil' tough for ya though ...

Posted by: cunn9305 | August 6, 2010 11:32 PM | Report abuse

Have you considered the possibility that Democrats are by nature dim witted, Ezra?

Posted by: grohlik | August 7, 2010 6:00 PM | Report abuse

Peter Orszag left to get married?!? What, he needed to spend months planning the wedding, the centerpieces, and so on? See, that's the kind of lying and spin these big name economists can no longer do. They have reputations to protect. Look soon for the departure of Larry Summers. You are trying, per instructions, to plant the idea that he is personally difficult that that's why he's leaving. But the cause will be to protect his reputation.

Posted by: truck1 | August 8, 2010 8:43 AM | Report abuse

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