Finally, President Barack Obama seems to have understood that sweet reasonableness is not enough. In the face of Republican intransigence, and ten months of fighting on their turf, he turned the focus back to his own agenda last night and challenged the Congress in ways that will force them to act or to bear the consequences. And, there was a flash of fire in his eyes and in his tone that is welcome indeed.
Obama’s speech to Congress last night was arguably his best since the campaign in 2008 in political terms. There was no soaring rhetoric, no turn of phrase that sticks in the mind beyond the repetition of the dull words, “And you should pass it now!” But, he did something – better to say he started to do something – that he has been unable to do all year. He defined a fight with the GOP on his turf not theirs and did so in a way that any obstruction on their part may prove politically costly.
When voters go into the voting booth and they feel like a taxpayer, they tend strongly to vote for the Republicans. When they go into the voting booth and they feel like a worker, they tend strongly to the Democrats. Getting and keeping the focus on jobs was and is critical to Obama’s re-election chances. Since the start of the year, the political debate has focused on budget deficits and government spending which is solidly GOP turf. Obama laid the groundwork – but he will need to keep the pressure on – to shift the debate to employment.
Focusing on jobs is also, in the event, more important for the economy than focusing on deficit reduction. In fact, one of the reasons the economy has stalled so badly is because of the elimination of government jobs as the 2009 Stimulus spending winds down. In every month this year, there has been private sector job growth, but the overall employment numbers have been weighed down by the losses of government jobs. Putting people to work, and getting them spending again, is the best way to “jolt” the economy as the president said last night, meticulously avoiding the word “stimulate.”
The only potential danger for the president at this stage is that his plan includes tax breaks that will actually help stimulate the economy, such as the reduction in the payroll tax, a reduction the GOP has been threatening to fight, and other tax cuts that will do little to stimulate the economy, such as those that give one-time tax credits to employers for hiring new people. And, it remains to be seen whether or not House Speaker John Boehner will be able to persuade his fellow Republicans to support to the most important stimulative part of the plan, infrastructure spending. It is not inconceivable that the GOP will back the tax cuts and fail to pass the rest of the plan, getting what they want but doing little to bolster the economy. President Obama needs to have his veto pen at the ready.
Obama also returned to the speech that launched his career, his keynote at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and to the specific theme that while we may value our individualism in America, there is another thread in our history, a sense of common purpose and a willingness to pursue the common good together.
But there has always been another thread running throughout our history - a belief that we are all connected; and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation.”
This theme, in its first iteration, included a biblical allusion, “I am my brother’s keeper.” Those religious allusions have disappeared from his speeches for a while, buried under policy wonkery. They need to come back but, even so, it was nice to hear the president point out the limited value of seeing America’s past or present through the lens of hyper-individualism..
The most telling moment of the night, however, was not this proposal or that. It came towards the end of the speech, when the president referred to the positive effects of the GI bill which, he noted, had put his grandfather through school. The Democratic members of Congress stood to applaud this invocation of a truly heroic program that transformed America and played such a crucial role in our economic growth in the post-war period. The Republicans stayed in their seats. I hope others noticed this: The Republicans in Congress would not applaud the GI bill. It makes sense of course, because the GI bill was a massive government program, a huge intrusion into the private sector, an exercise of government power not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution. But, it worked. Only some blinded by ideology would fail to see that. Q.E.D. I am hoping some enterprising campaign ad people will get that clip and find ways to include it in ads next year.
All members of the House and a third of the senators will also face re-election next year. President Obama needs to take his case for a jobs bill on the road and specifically to those swing districts where a Republican incumbent needs to be careful about playing the obstructionist card. Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, for example, will have to think long and hard before opposing this plan. Americans want job creation. And, unlike the Tea Party, they are quite willing to support tax increases on the wealthy to pay for it. If the GOP refuses to follow the President’s lead, Obama will have framed the election in terms that work for the Democrats: We want jobs, the GOP-controlled House wants to do nothing. That is a recipe for a Democratic victory.