Obama’s Jobs Gamble

He dares the Republicans to thwart his $447 billion proposal. Can he possibly win?

Barack Obama addresses a joint session of Congress on Sept. 8

President Obama is the first president to use the word “tweet” in an address to a joint session of Congress. And his message Thursday night was tidy enough to fit in 140 characters: @barackobama Hey @HouseGOP pass my plan or else–BO. The more than 4,000 words the president spoke contained details of his American Jobs Act, a $447 billion program aimed at giving the economy a jolt. Obama promised a continuation and expansion of the payroll tax cut that would give $1,500 a year to working people, tax breaks for hiring veterans and the long-term unemployed, and major investment in infrastructure to rebuild schools and roads, among other measures. Obama said he would pay for it all and made it clear that if Congressional Republicans didn’t pass it quickly, he would blame them. If it didn’t pass at all, he would blame them in the general election.

A president who started his administration with finessed attempts to find bipartisanship is now relying more on force. He made no extravagant offers to listen to the other side. The president outlined each element of his plan and footnoted each with proof that it had been supported by Republicans in the past. Message: If you don’t pass this quickly, it’s only because you’re being political. Over and over again, the president said “pass this bill” or the equivalent. And he was calling on Republicans not just to pass it but to pass it fast.

The president was aggressive in a way he has never been in speeches to Congress. He charged those who opposed his plans with threatening “the fairness and security that has defined this nation since our beginning.” Later in the speech he said he would fight against Republican policies that would make people chose between their job and their safety.

After the speech was over, Speaker John Boehner clapped twice—the statutory minimum for his position. His tepid response wasn’t a consequence of irritation so much as a result of the impatience someone might feel after having to sit through a seminar from HR on company compliance standards.

In public, Speaker Boehner and House Majority Eric Cantor said they could work with the president on some elements of the plans. They hoped he would listen to their ideas. They can read polls and know their standing is even lower than the president’s, and they saw no point in proving the president’s point by immediately dismissing his ideas. Their rank-and-file members were far less judicious, saying Obama was simply offering another failed stimulus package like the first one.

A recent Pew poll showed that people blame Republicans for not being willing to cooperate, so people may be receptive to the president’s message. But members of the GOP will be selling the idea that this is more big spending from a big-spending president—which the country also believes. Seventy percent, in a recent Washington Post poll, say Obama favors larger government, which only 38 percent of respondents say they would prefer. Fifty-six percent would prefer a smaller government. 

 Whether the president succeeds will depend on whether those rank and file Republicans start to feel any pressure from voters, and that will depend on whether Americans are actually listening to a president who has given a lot of speeches and whose approval rating is low. It will also depend on whether Americans who feel a record-low faith in government will believe that these programs will change anything. The president said these programs would offer a “jolt” to the economy, but he didn’t make wild claims. If Obama was offering a serum to cure a raging epidemic and Republicans were knocking it from his hand, he might have a strong case, but he was talking about another set of federal government programs: How many voters will believe that this particular set of programs can cure the sick economy?

Obama no doubt strengthened his base by putting Republicans on the spot.  He also suggested he wouldn’t abandon the fight as he has before, when, after a strong speech, he flees the ring. “This plan is the right thing to do right now,” he said. “You should pass it. And I intend to take that message to every corner of the country.”

Liberals such as Paul Krugman liked the proposals on policy grounds, arguing that its incentives for hiring will provide a large return on the investment. The president made a case to the broader electorate that he’s leading on the issue they care about. Will he be able to make Republicans pay for obstructionism if his program or some modification doesn’t pass? He’ll have to make good on his promise to campaign across the land, and he’ll have to lay blame and point fingers.

That won’t be enough to win him re-election, however. If the political strategists are right and the natural tendency is for this election to be a referendum on the incumbent, then the president will have to work to overcome that. He’ll have to give people an affirmative reason to vote, rather than simply stay home out of frustration. That’s a pretty grim prospect that he can only hope will be improved by the GOP nominating a terrible candidate.

The end of 2011 was already shaping up to be brutal in Washington, D.C. Congress had been tasked with finding $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction. Obama just added roughly one-third to that load.

The president finished his speech just in time for the kickoff of the NFL season. The speech had already been moved from the previous night to accommodate the GOP debate. It was a fitting bounce-around for a president who has constantly been acted on by other events. Woodrow Wilson said a presidency can be as big as the man wants to make it. This is true, but only within the constraints of the particular moment. The question of the speech is the question of the Obama presidency. How much can he realistically achieve in an office that is constrained by the Constitution, the opposition and a public that is angry, scared, and sending mixed signals. Is Obama doing the best anyone could, or is he playing a bad hand badly? His speech was an attempt to show that he’s trying to break through the limits in every way he can. After he was over he stopped to speak to the Senate chaplain Barry Black. A little divine help couldn’t hurt, either.

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