WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama is paying a price for a recession that began before he took office, and fellow Democrats have started to balk at his legislative agenda and demand greater efforts to create jobs.
Some liberal Democrats even want Obama to replace his economic team while moderates fear his bid to overhaul healthcare and stem global warming — two top priorities — may mean more fiscal hard times, at least in the short term.
In one sign of the angst on Capitol Hill, a group of black Democratic lawmakers last week temporarily blocked a bill to tighten financial regulation, another Obama priority, signaling they believe more help is urgently needed for the unemployed.
“There’s a lot of anxiety among Democrats,” said Anne Mathias of Concept Capital Washington Research Group, a private firm that analyzes Congress for institutional investors.
Said Mathias, “There is a sense that the president’s agenda doesn’t match what people think should be happening” — focusing on the U.S. jobless rate, which hit a 26-year high of 10.2 percent last month.
One year after Obama was elected with 53 percent of the popular vote on a message of “hope and change,” double-digit unemployment is sowing fear and doubt, even among those who voted for him.
With his once lofty approval rating down to about 50 percent, Obama is taking a hit for a downturn that could cost Democrats seats in next year’s congressional election. The party holding the White House almost always loses seats in the next mid-term election.
Compounding problems for Democrats are polls that show the public has begun to blame them nearly as much as they do Republicans for the recession that started in December 2007, a year before the end of the Bush administration.
High unemployment has helped sustain public fury over bailouts for Wall Street firms, fueling the anger of voters and lawmakers toward the Federal Reserve and Obama’s Treasury Department, which have led the financial rescue effort.
Some lawmakers have gone as far as to call on Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to resign. Others have championed legislation to strip the Fed of its authority to regulate banks and open up its monetary policy decisions to audits.
To be sure, the economy has begun to grow again and Wall Street has fared better. Since Obama took office, the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index is up some 37 percent. Bank profits have surged, helped by massive infusions of public money and government guarantees. Bankers’ bonuses are set to jump, too.
Yet that has made it hard for Obama to shake the perception that his administration is more interested in bailing out rich bankers than alleviating the pain among the unemployed.
Scrambling to demonstrate concern, Obama will host a jobs forum on December 3 to explore ways to get people back to work.
Plenty of people are dissatisfied, scared, even angry.
Geithner, a key player in the drive to turn around the economy, is catching fire from across the political spectrum.
“You have failed,” Republican Representative Kevin Brady told Geithner in asking him to step down at a November 19 congressional hearing.
Democratic Representative Peter DeFazio has also called for Geithner’s resignation and has said many other lawmakers think White House economic adviser Lawrence Summers should also go.
“When you mention either Geithner or Larry Summers ... there are boos and cries of derision,” DeFazio told MSNBC in mid-November.
“I think there’s a growing consensus in the (House Democratic) caucus we need a new economic team that cares more about jobs, Main Street and the American people than it does about Wall Street and huge (executive) bonuses,” DeFazio said.
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is expected to take some heat on December 3, when he testifies at a Senate hearing to consider confirming him to a second four-year term.
Last week, House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank abruptly postponed a vote on a bill to tighten of regulation of the financial industry, citing concerns by the congressional black caucus.
Representative Maxine Waters, a member of the caucus and Frank’s committee, said: “The recession has created a unique systemic risk that threatens all parts of the African-American community, including the poor and the middle class.”
While the White House promises new efforts to create jobs it insists it is not cooking up a second stimulus package.
Republicans have called the $787 billion economic stimulus plan passed at Obama’s request earlier this year a failure, and will pounce on any new big spending requests.
Congressional Democratic leaders are scrambling to come up with their own jobs package likely to include tax relief, stepped up spending on transportation and another extension of jobless benefits.
Senator Byron Dorgan, a member of the Democratic leadership, said: “Jobs has to be at the top of the agenda. The economy casts a shadow over all other issues.
“A lot of people are losing their jobs and hope. I’m not saying healthcare is not important, but we can work on more than one issue at a time,” he said.
Editing by Alan Elsner