Economy

Obama Delivers Impassioned Jobs Speech, But Fails to Take GOP to Task for Blocking Progress

The administration needs to start inflicting some political pain on the GOP for blocking even the modest, business-friendly measures to spur job growth.

On Thursday night, Barack Obama took to the podium to address the country with uncharacteristic passion. His voice was inflected with genuine anger as he asked Congress to pass a stimulus package significantly larger than reports over the past week had suggested.

He called on the assembled lawmakers to stop squabbling and do something for the American people. “I know there’s been a lot of skepticism about whether the politics of the moment will allow us to pass this jobs plan,” he said. “But know this: the next election is fourteen months away. And the people who sent us here – the people who hired us to work for them – they don’t have the luxury of waiting fourteen months. Some of them are living week to week; paycheck to paycheck; even day to day. They need help, and they need it now.”

But the content of his speech belied the fire in his tone. Obama once again tried to offer something for everyone. For his base, he laid out a compelling narrative of how the American middle-class has faced a decades-long assault on its economic security. Americans, he said, believe “in a country where everyone gets a fair shake and does their fair share – where if you stepped up, did your job, and were loyal to your company, that loyalty would be rewarded with a decent salary and good benefits.” But for years, they “watched that compact erode. They have seen the deck too often stacked against them. And they know that Washington hasn’t always put their interests first.” He “rejected the argument that says for the economy to grow, we have to roll back protections that ban hidden fees by credit card companies, or rules that keep our kids from being exposed to mercury, or laws that prevent the health insurance industry from shortchanging patients.” He said, “We shouldn’t be in a race to the bottom, where we try to offer the cheapest labor and the worst pollution standards.”

He promised conservatives that the package wouldn't add a penny to the deficit, and took a shot at members of his own party “who don’t think we should make any changes at all to Medicare and Medicaid.” He talked about passing trade deals and cutting “rules and regulations that put an unnecessary burden on businesses at a time when they can least afford it.”

In splitting the difference, he may have pleased nobody, but that's not the issue. Regardless of what the pundits say, the speech's fatal flaw, in this circumstance, was its lack of partisanship. Because he yet again laid generic blame on “the politics of the moment,” suggesting that Congressional dysfunction is a bipartisan problem, despite the indisputable fact that Republican nihilists have taken obstructionism to unprecedented heights in order to destroy his presidency. (While Obama dances around the issue, Republican leaders have been quite explicit about their goal.) This presents a practical problem: in spreading around the blame, Obama missed a chance to inflict political pain on the GOP for the "austerity recession" they have demanded. Without that pressure – without genuine fear of an electoral backlash next November – it's hard to see the GOP-controlled House assenting to any plan.

The approach Obama offered was, as he acknowledged, “basically the one I’ve been advocating for months.” He called on Congress to extend unemployment benefits and increase the payroll tax-break passed during last fall's budget standoff, offered additional tax credits to induce small businesses to hire new employees, asked for an “infrastructure bank” to upgrade schools and transportation systems and aid to states to pay for teachers and first responders. He promised a tax credit targeted at companies that hire people who have been out of work for more than six months – an important measure for the long-term unemployed. He promised to “pay for it” all by closing unspecified loopholes and with new spending cuts – cuts that “wouldn’t happen so abruptly that they’d be a drag on our economy, or prevent us from helping small business and middle-class families get back on their feet right away.”

The proposal would inject around $450 billion into the economy – about 50 percent larger than reports this week had suggested. The Economic Policy Institute gave the proposal “high grades,” noting that the “components of the plan are highly effective for the most part... and at a scale that can really move the dial.” EPI added that the “initial year (or more) will be deficit financed so the effort doesn’t take away with one hand what the other hand had already done—paying for the program in the out years of a 10-year period allows this.”

But the proposal can't “move the dial” if it dies in Congress. And coming into the speech, Obama faced an almost impossible task. On the one hand, the country is mired in a deep funk that will drag on for years absent the kind of big public spending programs that could fill the gap left by the private sector's crash in demand. But this week almost seven out of 10 Americans told pollsters with the Pew Foundation that they didn't think investing in infrastructure would do much for the jobs picture. Many believe that cutting spending will spur job growth – a carefully constructed alternate reality that has, tragically, been embraced by members of both parties. Obama himself has echoed that narrative, helping to create a political atmosphere in which the very things government needs to do to help the country out of its morass aren't politically popular.

Much will depend on what follows the speech. While Obama's proposals weren't entirely new, and his hesitancy to be seen as too “partisan” was what many of us have come to expect, there were some key differences between his approach on Thursday and that of other major legislative efforts during the last two years. In the past, Obama has laid out proposals in broad terms and then left the details up to Congressional leaders to hammer out, but on Thursday, he offered a specific package that he called on them to pass, now – he repeatedly stressed the importance of taking action now. And, having challenged them to pass a specific set of proposals, now, he then vowed to take his case to the American people, something that critics within his own party have lamented he didn't do in the past.

It may be that, with Obama's approval ratings in the tank, the administration has finally settled on a more aggressive approach to dealing with its opposition. A key theme in Obama's speech was that “every proposal I’ve laid out... is the kind that’s been supported by Democrats and Republicans in the past” and “every proposal I’ve laid out tonight will be paid for.”

If, as campaign season approaches, the administration can pivot from that "post-partisan" instinct and start inflicting some real political pain on the GOP for blocking even the modest, business-friendly measures to spur job growth they've supported in the past, then maybe the American economy can get just a little bit of the real relief it needs so badly.