There wasn’t much you could call professorial about President Obama’s jobs speech Thursday night. Forceful, yes. Demanding, perhaps. Impatient, very much so.
“We meet at an urgent time for our country,” Obama began.
“I am sending this Congress a plan that you should pass right away,” he said. “It will put people to work right now,” he claimed.
“Pass this jobs bill,” he repeated — over and over again, with a frequency only rivaled by his use of the phrase “right away.”
But if the president was impatient with Congress, he wasn’t expressing anything that majorities of Americans haven’t in recent polls.
Obama’s speech seemed to be as much a vehicle for that new tone as anything else. So it shouldn’t be surprising that there was a mismatch between the president’s rhetoric and the policy he proposed. Obama was right to indicate, however briefly, that there is only so much he can do to reduce unemployment — particularly as he faces a hostile Congress. Which isn’t to say that his plan is bad. Much of it is the sort of counter-cyclical spending policy that can help when the economy is underperforming.
Building and repairing roads, bridges and levees is attractive on its own merits — it can drive long-term economic expansion — and the prospect that new construction can help with America’s jobs problem, too, is tantalizing. The president will have to do more to explain how his new infrastructure spending will enter the economy faster than money from the 2009 stimulus did — just what “red tape” he would cut out of the process.
In terms of raw numbers, the bulk of the president’s plan is extending and expanding a temporary payroll tax cut. Critics argue that continuing it won’t create jobs but will cost money. Perhaps, but raising payroll taxes could depress employment. At the least, there’s a simple, do-no-harm argument for this sort of policy.
The weakest proposal in Obama’s plan is to offer employers cash for hiring new employees. This crude policy is sure to hand precious federal dollars to companies that might very well have hired, anyway, while not offering a large enough incentive for other companies disinclined to spend the tens of thousands it costs to hire each new full-time employee.
Then again, the president’s rhetoric might be all that ends up mattering. True, House Speaker John Boehner (R) recently indicated some willingness to increase infrastructure spending. But what was bipartisan a few years ago might not be today. There is a vocal wing of the GOP that views anti-cyclical federal spending as part of the problem, not part of the solution, even if it goes toward authentic national investments such as roads and bridges. Boehner might have to choose between splitting his caucus by passing something with lots of Democratic support or continuing the gridlock.
If Republicans ultimately choose gridlock over compromise, as they did in the debt-limit fight last month, the president will be able to say that he proposed a centrist jobs plan that his base wasn’t crazy about, that Republicans should have been able to accept, and that he pleaded with Congress to pass. Given that, if you’re an Obama partisan, a Republican rejection might be exactly what you want — though that’s a perverse policy outcome. Even if the president himself would prefer to pass something, he has given himself room to push back hard on Republican lawmakers should they balk.
Thursday’s speech could end up being most notable as the first major address of Obama’s 2012 campaign against the GOP House.
More on Obama’s jobs speech from PostOpinions