Another day removed from President Barack Obama's address to Congress on job creation and the economy, some reporters and commentators are narrowing in on an omission they see in his plan: What's he going to do about all those mortgages?
Mortgage debt continues to hold down consumer spending and imperil the financial security of American households. Short-term stimulus, like Obama's calls for an extended payroll tax cut and new spending on infrastructure, will not make that debt burden go away, economists tell The Washington Post:
Americans, millions of whom owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth, are still paying off that debt. Without a plan to reduce that debt, these economists warn, all stimulus can provide is temporary relief.
“Once stimulus fades away, households are back on the street,” said Atif R. Mian, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley. But he added, “Once you have removed the debt burden from households, you’ve taken care of the problem.”
The Obama administration says it is continuing to work on a plan to reduce the mortgage burden homeowners face each month — in particular by working with federal housing regulators to support more mortgage refinancings. But administration officials have rejected big proposals to cancel mortgage debt for fear of rewarding mortgage holders who borrowed far beyond their means.
Edward Alden, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has similar doubts:
Until there is serious mortgage debt relief, businesses are unlikely to invest and hire because consumer demand will not be there.
The top line from the speech will be that the president has again called for government spending and tax cuts--about $280 billion in new stimulus--that will be criticized on the right as too much government and on the left as not enough. It is the wrong debate. President Obama had a chance to change it last night, but failed to seize that opportunity.
The administration is said to be assembling a new plan to relieve mortgage debt burdens, without the moral hazard of rewarding those who speculated, perhaps recklessly, and lost. The bigger question, as Charles Blow writes in The New York Times, may be which president tries to get such a plan enacted, the bold one of last Thursday, or the listless one seen in the preceding weeks.
Blow's post-speech take, from The Times:
He isn’t only battling a calcifying cynicism about the inefficacy of government in general, he’s battling the rapidly hardening public perception that he himself is a product of what I call the doughnut doctrine of leadership — soft, glazy, hollow in the middle and ideally suited for getting dunked.
Americans want him to clearly identify his core beliefs. It’s simple: They want to fully understand his values and how they apply to us as individuals and as a country. Moreover, they want to be completely convinced that he is willing to defend it all. The vacillation between hot and cold, stern and pliable, resolute and accommodating hasn’t inspired that confidence.