The best part of President Obama’s speech tonight was his hammering over and over the need to pass “this bill,” meaning his bill to boost the economy. It wasn’t, “we can work this out,” or, “I look forward to talking to Speaker Boehner.” No, Obama said flatly that the economy is in crisis, that action is needed right now, and that he had put together a recipe whose ingredients include many ideas Republicans had supported in the past. He didn’t say it explicitly, but he might as well have said to the Republicans, “So what’s your problem?”
I broadly agree with what my colleagues Greg Sargent, Harold Meyerson and Gene Robinson have already said about this speech. It will obviously come as a relief to progressives (even if some were complaining tonight about those future cuts in Medicare), and I have not seen AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka smiling so broadly in a long time.
The size matters. At $447 billion over the next year, as Harold pointed out, the bill will spend out at “a rate higher than the $787-billion-over-two-years stimulus that Congress enacted in 2009.” With growth stalling and unemployment still over 9 percent, a jolt of at least that size is necessary.
The heavy emphasis on tax cuts should make it harder for Republicans to reject it, particularly the payroll tax that is most helpful to middle- and lower-income workers. Obama’s best jab at the Republicans went like this: “I know that some of you have sworn oaths to never raise any taxes on anyone for as long as you live. Now is not the time to carve out an exception and raise middle-class taxes, which is why you should pass this bill right away.”
I was watching Speaker John Boehner while Obama said this. He wore a wan smile that suggested he appreciated the line the way an athlete appreciates a good play by the opposing team. But he didn’t applaud.
A couple of the smaller, though still significant, items that were good to see in the proposal: Obama finally endorsed help for local governments to prevent teacher layoffs, money I’m told could also be applied to police and other first responders. It totaled $35 billion. We have lost something over 600,000 government jobs because of cutbacks, particularly at the local level. That is a real drag on the economy. The $25-billion school repair program is a good idea, not only because Obama was right to suggest that the shape a school is in tells kids what we think of education -- if schooling is so important, why is the paint peeling and why are the walls crumbling? -- but also because this will spend out quickly. You don’t need a lot of permits and reviews to repair an existing building. And if Obama can pull it off (and we need to know more details), the plan to refinance what I understand will be 2 to 3 million mortgages would help a lot of families and pour some more consumer spending into the marketplace. And that won’t require any legislation.
After months of being a negotiator, Obama finally looked like a president. He has had a real problem in recent months with his standing in the polls on strength and leadership. The speech was a step in the right direction.
And the worst thing for a president is to have an economy faltering and to just keep promising that things will get better. (It did not work well for Herbert Hoover.) Obama finally admitted that the problem was big, he offered a solution of an appropriate size, and he can now say several hundred more times that Congress needs to pass his bill. Finally, he seems ready to go on the offensive not just for his re-election but for a necessary policy. And if Congress balks or cuts it way back, the argument will be exactly the opposite of the one that occurred after the stimulus bill: Obama can argue that he offered a plan that would have worked and that Congress neutered it.
But there is the rub. This speech won’t solve Obama’s problems. Only a persistent, disciplined and focused effort to advance this proposal and the ideas behind it can begin to do that. And to put it charitably, follow-through has not always been this administration’s long suit. Still, the nature of this speech suggests Obama knows that what he had been doing wasn’t working. That’s a good sign.
More on Obama’s jobs speech from PostOpinions