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Byron York: In inaugural speech, Obama gives nation's top issue short shrift

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Photo - President Barack Obama waves to crowd after his Inaugural speech at the ceremonial swearing-in on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol during the 57th Presidential Inauguration in Washington, Monday, Jan. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Scott Andrews, Pool)
President Barack Obama waves to crowd after his Inaugural speech at the ceremonial swearing-in on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol during the 57th Presidential Inauguration in Washington, Monday, Jan. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Scott Andrews, Pool)
Politics,Byron York,Campaign 2012,Politics Digest

Why did President Obama barely mention unemployment in his inaugural address? After all, today's jobless rate, 7.8 percent, is precisely what it was when Obama first took the oath of office in January 2009. It's even worse; if you combine the unemployed with those who are working part-time but want a full-time job, and those who have been too discouraged to look recently, the figure is 14.4 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That is a desperately bad situation. People know it. In poll after poll, Americans list jobs and the economy as the issue most important to the country. They've been saying the same thing every day Barack Obama has been in office.

And yet, in his inaugural address the president said essentially nothing about the nation's most pressing problem. Why?

Because he didn't have to. His base supporters -- loyalists and activists who would declare war on a Republican president with a similar unemployment rate -- continue to give Obama a pass on joblessness. There are other issues, like immigration reform, climate change and raising taxes, that excite them more than economic recovery.

Before the president's speech Monday, I spoke to several of his supporters as they headed to the Mall. Even though the crowd was dense, the security checkpoints slow and the walk long, they were delighted to be there. And when I asked their thoughts about an unemployment rate as high today as when Obama took office, they were in no mood to point fingers at the man on the inauguration stand.

"It has nothing to do with the president," said Germaine Hodge, of Austin, Texas. "I blame the Republicans and the Tea Party."

"If the Republican Party would pass Obama's jobs bill, the unemployment rate would not be where it is," said Renee Ford-Elosiebo, of Memphis, Tenn. "They are deliberately holding the country hostage by not passing the jobs bill. Their intention was to make sure that he was a one-term president, with the economy not growing and unemployment high."

"I blame that on Republicans," said Frances Lippette, of Raleigh, N.C. "I blame that on business people."

"I feel like it was going to take longer than the four years," said Octavia Taylor, of Queens, N.Y. "I never thought the economy was going to turn around in just one term."

"He has stabilized the economy," said Illinois state Rep. Chuck Jefferson, who served with Obama in the Illinois Statehouse. "Most people have to be happy about the fact that it has stabilized, because it could be through the roof right now."

There's no doubt they all greatly admire Obama and would truly like to see the economy improve. But when Obama's core supporters put no pressure on him to produce results on jobs, when they make excuses for him and blame his political adversaries, the result is a president who doesn't feel bound to address the nation's core problem. So he doesn't.

There were plenty of messages in Obama's speech. He will push for immigration reform. He will push for gay rights. (Obama used the words "equal" or "equality" seven times in his speech, versus just once in his first inaugural address.) He will push on global warming. And he will keep pouring billions of taxpayer dollars into "green energy" projects that have so far yielded little energy and fewer jobs.

But the economy? Other than declaring, "An economic recovery has begun," Obama had nearly nothing to say.

That should not be a surprise. Since last November's election, the president's supporters, in political office and in the press, have spent a lot of time talking about his second-term agenda. The economy somehow never tops their lists. Obama himself, when asked to name his top priorities on "Meet the Press" recently, put immigration reform at the head of the list.

In Obama's first term, of course, with unemployment high and economic anxiety even higher, he chose to pursue national health care above all, promising repeatedly to make a "pivot" to the economy at some point in the future. That didn't really happen until the 2012 campaign. Now, safely re-elected, Obama has put the jobs issue back on the back burner.

In 2010, Republicans made huge strides, won a lot of seats in Congress, by asking, "Where are the jobs, Mr. President?" That's still the fundamental question today, if someone cares to ask it.

Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at byork@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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Byron York

Chief Political Correspondent
The Washington Examiner