Six years later, California’s priority is still jobs

There was a sobering symmetry between the first State of the State speech offered by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the one he recited last week.

“Jobs, jobs, jobs,” he said on Jan. 6, 2004, just months after winning office in the wacky recall election. “The more jobs the better. I am going to become California’s Job Czar.”

And on Jan. 6, 2010, delivering the last such speech of his governorship:

“The first priority for the coming year, obviously, is to get the economy and to get jobs back. Jobs, jobs, jobs.”

That rhetoric was the same, but everything else seemed wearily different. State of the State speeches are often so programmed as to be almost meaningless: Thank your esteemed colleagues in the Legislature or insult them (Schwarzenegger has done both), recount the successes of the last year, toss out in glancing generality the road map for the coming year and leave the details for the release of the budget proposal a few days hence.

Schwarzenegger followed the script last week, declaring on Wednesday that “the worst is over” for California’s economy and, on Friday, releasing a budget plan that would carve billions from education, healthcare and social services.

But between the lines, the speeches also illustrated the arc of change during the Schwarzenegger years. The man who exuded optimism in his first speech appeared, at least somewhat, to have succumbed to something approaching realism by his last. In tone, at least, if not in substance.

As a state, too, we have ridden the wave: Californians who optimistically cast their lot with an untested movie star now resemble survivors on a reality show, trying to figure out which bugs to swallow in order to stay alive. California’s -- and Schwarzenegger’s -- flamboyant optimism has proved to be no match for hard reality.

Just one measure: In October 2003, when Schwarzenegger was elected for the first time, unemployment in California stood at 6.9%. In November, the last month for which figures are available, joblessness stood at 12.3%.

In human terms, that meant 1.1 million more people unemployed than six years earlier -- a number that, because of the way unemployment is calculated, does not include countless others who have either given up entirely or are working fewer hours for less pay.

Not by any stretch is that all the governor’s fault, of course, and none of the wreckage to come was evident in the heady days of early 2004, when he was forwarding his first budget at the pinnacle of his popularity. He was suffused with victory and reciting, still, some of his favorite campaign lines.

“I don’t want to move boxes around; I want to blow them up,” he declared, as if inviting everyone to be an extra in one of his movies.

“I am a salesman by nature,” he said, adding, “If I can sell tickets to my movies like ‘Red Sonja’ or ‘Last Action Hero,’ you know I can sell just about anything. And California is the easiest sell I’ve ever had.” He vowed never to spend money California didn’t have and not to tax and borrow the state’s way out of trouble.

It turned out not to be an easy sell. And the promises foundered.

So, too, has Schwarzenegger’s popularity. When he gave his first State of the State address, 59% of Californians approved of him. Last month, only 27% did.

In part, at least, that stems from another reality: People who get elected by vowing to spurn politics-as-usual fall fast when the populace looks up to see exactly that. It’s almost personal, a sense of betrayal.

“People wanted fundamental change. . . . None of that’s happened,” said state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, a Republican, making the case last week for his candidacy to succeed Schwarzenegger.

“The misery level out there,” Poizner said, “is huge.”

On the day of Schwarzenegger’s first State of the State address, Caltech political science professor Rod Kiewiet argued that the governor had to move quickly and toughly to surmount the budget crisis. “It’s kind of like Civil War surgery,” he said then. “If you’re going to take someone’s leg off, then do it quickly.”

But Schwarzenegger did not, Kiewiet said last week, “and now we’re back to wondering which leg to cut off.”

Kiewiet ascribed some of the blame to Californians, who tend to think of the state as exceptional and who saw in Schwarzenegger, as people see in all charismatic politicians, what they wanted to see.

“Everyone says, ‘Oh, yeah, once we get this guy in, everyone will be fine,’ ” he said. “Yet their expectations are contradictory. . . . They are dreaming.”

Last week came another splash of cold water.

“I did not seek this job to cut . . . but to build. I did not seek this job to preside over the decline of a dream but to renew it,” Schwarzenegger said in January 2004.

And in 2010: “As bitter as the words are in my mouth, we face additional cuts. . . . What can we say at this point except the truth, that we have no choice?”

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