Here is the first lesson to be taken from last week's disappointing jobs report: This is not the moment to allow taxes to rise or to impose significant cuts in the federal budget. Either action could further undermine a weak economy at a time when government policy needs to act to prop it up.
The problems are both domestic and global. Here, neither President Obama nor Congress has taken the steps needed to reassure Americans that the economy is in safe hands. Consumers won't spend and companies won't hire when the leadership vacuum in Washington makes the future so uncertain.
As we observed when Washington approved the stimulus bill in 2009, the nation needed a work program that attended to aging infrastructure while putting Americans to work. Instead, Obama and Congress settled on an unfocused program that did too little to meet the need.
It went downhill from there, with Obama and the tea party-controlled House failing to agree on deficit reduction approaches that could have reassured Americans that the economy was in responsible hands. Obama and the Democrats, in fact, moved toward the Republican position, but the all-or-nothing GOP kicked away all compromise.
Obama has also created his own set up problems, by fashioning an administration lacking in private-sector expertise. Lacking private-sector work experience, himself, the president would have been wise to surround himself with aides who understand job creation.
He didn't. According to the American Enterprise Institute, presidents dating back to Theodore Roosevelt have constructed Cabinets in which an average of 46 percent of members have private-sector business experience. In Obama's Cabinet, only 8 percent have that experience, and at a moment in history when job creation is more important than it has been since the 1930s.
To be fair, Obama and Congress — then under Democratic control — did rescue the banking and automobile industries, whose failure would have almost certainly have pushed the Great Recession into full-fledged depression. Things could have been radically worse than they are today. Still, the scope of what was a genuine crisis demanded more then and since. Washington wasn't up to that task.
Globally, the U.S. economy is being battered by weakness in Asia and especially in Europe. There, problems are incubating at a furious pace, particularly in Greece, where voters in mid-June may reject the terms of a $170 billion bailout and abandon the euro. That could bring on financial chaos.
The economic recovery from the Great Recession has been as uneven as a corduroy road, and previous fears of new downturns have been overtaken by more hopeful developments. It is possible that will happen again, but until things settle down for good, Washington needs to play its hand very carefully.
That means avoiding sharp budget cuts or tax increases. It may mean increased spending over the short term to stimulate the economy for the long term. And it means that whoever wins the presidency in November needs to fashion a Cabinet that has the experience needed to do the critical work of creating jobs.
And Congress could try to help, rather than obstruct.