JACKSONVILLE, Fla.—There have been many of them over the past four and a half years – the economy road show, a mix of presidential pageantry and salesmanship to convince the country and its Congress to do more to create jobs and improve future economic prospects.
President Obama has begun another, one that brought him to the vast port of this Florida city on Thursday to highlight the need for Congress to approve more spending on the roads, airports, bridges and trading hubs to meet the economic demands of a global economy.
What’s different this time – what will make this series of speeches over the next two months more politically convincing than those he delivered during the “recovery summer” and “Main Street” jobs tour – is the relatively modest request at the heart of Obama’s list of issues and ideas.
More than adopting his activist vision of government, Obama wants Congress, specifically a recalcitrant group of House Republicans, to get out of the way.
There is a lot Obama wants from Congress, little of which is likely achievable in the current political circumstances. For Obama, looking to put his second term on a more focused course, preserving the status quo might be a victory in itself.
“Washington hasn’t just ignored the problem,” Obama told an audience of a few hundred people gathered at a dockside cruise terminal here. “It’s made things worse.”
The impending budget debate and expiration of the borrowing limit in several months has – again – potentially set the conditions for a politically induced economic setback similar to the one that followed the 2011 debt-ceiling fight.
As deputy White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday, a government shutdown would “suck the momentum” from the still-fragile economic recovery.
But Obama is making threats of his own that could complicate the simple goal of keeping the government running. In his speeches this week, Obama has threatened to reject spending bills that do not meet his goal of helping the middle class.
Here in Jacksonville, where he highlighted a pair of projects whose permitting he helped expedite through executive order, Obama condemned House Republicans for “pushing bills that would cut education, cut science, cut research.” He pledged to oppose those efforts.
The criticism echoed the challenge he made to Republicans the previous day, when he called for their ideas and for an economic plan that reaches beyond spending cuts and a repeal of his health-care act.
“Shutting down the government just because I’m for keeping it open – that’s not an economic plan,” Obama said. “Refusing to pay bills you’ve already racked up isn’t an economic plan. That’s just being a deadbeat.”
His position, as well as the partisan edge he has brought to his remarks, will likely make him few new friends among House Republicans. Ahead of the president’s speaking tour, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) warned of an impending “Obama-induced government shutdown.”
“Under the president’s leadership our country has fallen into the ‘new normal’ of slow growth, high unemployment, and stagnant wages - and I think it’s unacceptable,” Boehner said Thursday on the House floor. “But his speech turned out to be all sizzle and no steak. That’s assuming that there is any sizzle left after you’ve reheated this thing so many times.”
That not closing the government or defaulting on national debt payments is a demand Obama still needs to make, as he has this week, captures the current state of Washington’s partisanship this president once pledged to change.
Mid-term elections are looming next year, and both the White House and congressional Republicans view the outcome as important to determining Obama’s legacy as an advocate of government and in preparing the nation’s economy for the future.
So far, congressional Republicans, Obama’s chief target in the speech here Thursday and the pair he delivered the day before, say it is the president who needs to change despite his re-election victory last year that he viewed as a validation of the economic program he is laying out this week. Spending must come down and government must step out of the economy, say Republicans in response to the president’s speeches.
Obama has cited the current economic state of the country, a limbo between past recession and strong growth, is one difference from the debates of the past.
Despite Republican efforts, Obama told audiences in Illinois, Missouri and here, his mix of budget decisions, tax cuts, and health-care legislation have brought the country back from economic calamity.
“Five years after the start of that Great Recession, America has fought its way back,” Obama declared in Illinois, perhaps the firmest claim of success on economic issues he has made.
The caveat comes next, in case the country believes 7.6 percent unemployment, a yawning gap between chief executive and worker salaries, and slow growth amounts to victory. “But -- and here’s the big ‘but,’” Obama told his audience at Knox College, in Galesburg, Ill., this week, “I’m here to tell you today that we’re not there yet.”
It is not that Obama doesn’t want what he is asking for – congressional help to make college and homeownership more affordable, more spending on primary education, job training, and basic scientific research that he says spawns the jobs the American economy should be creating.
But few of those proposals have gone anywhere in a divided Congress in the past, and the political circumstances have remained largely unchanged on all issues except immigration despite last year’s election.
The ho-hum Republican response to his message in recent days suggests they are unlikely to go far this fall during the coming budget debate, whose terms Obama is hoping to set now with help from the crowds he is addressing.
“Remind Washington what’s at stake,” he told the audience.