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Democrats must push for new stimulus

By Amitai Etzioni, Special to CNN
Prospective workers line up outside Rio Hotel & Casino during a job fair for Harrah's Entertainment, Inc. April 14 in Las Vegas.
Prospective workers line up outside Rio Hotel & Casino during a job fair for Harrah's Entertainment, Inc. April 14 in Las Vegas.
  • Amitai Etzioni: GOP thinks deficit reduction is key election issue, but jobs tops the list
  • Democrats need to admit another stimulus is necessary to create jobs, he says
  • Etzioni: Message that deficit reduction means recession needs to be driven home
  • Strategy should be stimulus and jobs now, deficit reduction next year, he writes

Editor's note: Amitai Etzioni is professor of international relations at George Washington University and the author of several books, including "Security First" and "New Common Ground." He was a senior adviser to the Carter White House and has taught at Columbia and Harvard universities and the University of California, Berkeley.

(CNN) -- The conventional wisdom is that the Democrats are going to take a shellacking in the midterm elections because of voter anger and the sour state of the economy.

Besides those reasons, one should note the role played by the hapless Democrats' inability to get their act together. Above all, they do not dare to point to the true reason why the economy is stalling, just as it was about to take off. It needs more stimulus money.

Republicans believe that lowering government spending and the deficit are what the economy needs and what the public wants to hear from them. Even if doing that will push the economy into a recession, Republicans assume that this platform will improve their returns in the 2010 election and ensure their recapture of the White House in 2012. And, as they correctly stress, blaming Bush will not work anymore -- Obama now owns this mess. In short, the Republicans' ducks are neatly lined up.

In contrast, the Democrats' strategy is conflicted and confusing. Some Democrats are liberals, some are centrists, and some hold to Republican-like conservative ideas. Democrats either favor more stimulus, or oppose it, or they dance around the issue.

President Obama says he is a pragmatist -- which translates to his emphasizing reduction of the deficit on some days, and calling for more stimulus on others. But he is forced to settle for stopgap mini-bills, such as $26 billion to stop mass layoffs in the states and $34 billion for extending unemployment benefits.

Given the size of the economy, these sums will have hardly any discernible effect. They are missing a digit: $260 billion and $340 billion come closer to the needed amounts.

At first blush, the Democrats' hedging on the deficit seems to make sense. Millions of Americans are very troubled by the deficit. Recent polls, however, contradict the notion that the majority of Americans are more concerned about the deficit than about jobs or stronger economic growth.

A recent Gallup poll shows the economy in general, at 30 percent, and unemployment, at 28 percent, are the top two issues for Americans: nearly 60 percent together. The deficit came in at 7 percent. And a Bloomberg poll taken in July shows that 70 percent of Americans favored reducing the unemployment rate over reducing the deficit.

One could say that people who are most concerned about jobs are going to vote for the Democrats anyhow, and that in order to attract other votes, the Democrats must focus on the deficit. Polls show otherwise: A Quinnipiac poll conducted in July shows that 61 percent of independents and 58 percent of Republicans thought that reducing unemployment is more important than reducing the deficit.

Polls predicting Republican and Democratic fortunes in the elections show what public opinion looks like right now, before the Democrats have made the case that what we need is more stimulus and that deficit cutting is next year's problem.

You might ask: Isn't this what Democratic Sen. So-and-So said, and isn't this what President Obama has argued? But such occasional remarks will not do. For the pro-strong growth position to catch on, the president, Cabinet members, congressional leaders, and progressive think-tank mavens need to find 101 ways to make the same point: There is a season for everything. Now we must stimulate more; next year, or in two years, we will make deficit reduction our priority.

Some Democrats hold that it is hard to tell the American people that deficits now are good, and next year they will be bad. Well, I tested that idea on some first graders. I asked them if they could understand that the fact that you do not need air conditioning in the winter does not deny that you will need it in the hot summer to follow. They got it. So will the American majority, if the case is properly laid before them.

Properly means the case must be made as a central theme of the election. And it should not be muddled with promotions of other good things -- to make jobs greener, cooler, or better paying. Americans at this point will be happy to have jobs that are blue, brown, or covered with polka dots.

Finally, the very framing of the issue makes a difference. As long as the focus is on deficits versus jobs, many Americans with jobs will think it is the other guys who can't find any, while the burgeoning deficit will affect all of us and our children.

But the issue before the voters is whether the economy will slide back into a recession or achieve a decent growth rate. That's not a question about a better life for someone else, but for all of us.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Amitai Etzioni.