By far the most stirring line in the president’s jobs speech Thursday was his acknowledgment that “the next election is 14 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 14 months.”
Throughout the speech, during which the president unveiled “The American Jobs Act” (more on that in a minute), Obama addressed the politics of passing a jobs bill as much as the bill itself.
He opened his remarks in that vein and much of the speech took the form of a sales pitch, often pausing between sentences to repeat some variation of “pass this ... ” or “you should pass this. ... ” It’s an old-school sales technique, and not the only one. “This is America,” he said. “Every child deserves a great school. And we can give it to them if we act now.” And if you pass this bill now, we’ll throw in not one, but two tax cuts!
However, it wasn’t clear at times whether Obama was trying to persuade Republicans to vote for his bill or blame them should it fail to become law.
In one breath Obama joked about the Grover Norquist pledge never to raise taxes that many Republican lawmakers have signed and urged his rivals to pass the bill on the basis that it extends a middle-class tax cut. In another, he pleaded with Congress to pass the bill because it would raise taxes on the wealthy—something he knows the opposition will not do.
When he wasn’t selling, the president framed the debate as a failure of politics that was beneath him. He came off as the patient parent, reminding those in attendance that many of the proposals in his American Jobs Act are favored by both parties.
“This isn’t political grandstanding. This isn’t class warfare. This is simple math,” he said, in reference to the talking points used against him.
The plan is reported to cost $447 billion, the majority of which ($253 billion) is made up of tax cuts to workers, businesses that hire workers and the unemployed. The rest is spread around infrastructure spending on transportation, schools and foreclosed homes, aid to the states and local governments, and a one-year extension of unemployment benefits. Obama also wants to take steps without help from Congress to refinance mortgages at historically low rates.
Obama’s jobs bill is more ambitious than White House leaks had led us to believe—that was probably the idea—but it still leaves many doubting it will do enough to put people back to work. As economists L. Randall Wray and Stephanie Kelton wrote on Truthdig this week, “Time and again, Obama has shown that he will only tinker around the edges, relying on the same tired supply-side initiatives that will not work: more incentives to build business confidence, subsidies to reduce labor costs and to promote exports, and maybe even tax cuts to please Republicans.” That describes a good portion of the American Jobs Act.
Still, it’s a relief to see the White House make an effort to actually do something about jobs, and the foreclosure crisis to boot. But before we get too carried away, there’s the matter of funding this thing.
The president said he will pay for every dollar of his plan with a new deficit reduction proposal that will come out Monday and by making “modest adjustments to health care programs like Medicare and Medicaid and by reforming our tax code in a way that asks the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations to pay their fair share.” That sentence is sure to please no one in Congress, though he got applause.
The president politely dismissed Republican arguments for less regulation and government spending, although he promised to trim in places. At one point Obama attempted to co-opt Abraham Lincoln as a Republican inspiration who believed in the value of Americans working together.
Obama resorted to flag waving at times to remind us that a thriving economy is in the national interest. China came up twice, first when Obama said, “Building a world class transportation system is part of what made us [an] economic superpower, and now we’re going to sit back and watch China build newer airports and faster railroads—at a time when millions of unemployed construction workers could build them right here in America?” Later, Joe Biden actually fist-pumped in excitement when Obama said, “We’re going to make sure the next generation of manufacturing takes root not in China or Europe, but right here in the United States of America.”
The speech was more interesting and even entertaining than what Obama has offered throughout most of his presidency. As I’ve written before on this page, Obama’s rhetorical gifts clearly shine when he’s in campaign mode. But as the president himself pointed out, many Americans don’t have time for the next campaign to play out. We shall see in the coming weeks and months how effective his speech was at moving Congress to act.
White House / Pete Souza
President Obama speaks before Congress during his 2011 State of the Union address in January.