President Obama had a dual mission when he addressed Congress and the country Thursday night: to present a plan to stimulate the economy and, as pressingly, to seize the initiative in a political battle that will be at the heart of the 2012 election.
Reflecting his objectives, the president spoke with a renewed sense of urgency — and with more pointed rhetoric than he often projects from such a weighty podium. He outlined a roughly $450 billion package and called on Congress to pass it right away. But he also used his speech to frame the coming debate over the economy in ways that he hoped would pin the blame on Republicans if they failed to go along.
President Obama addressed a joint session of Congress on Thursday to unveil his jobs plan.
Breaking down Obama’s jobs plan
Why isn’t there more hiring?
The address Thursday was the opening round of an administration offensive that will take the president outside Washington to make his case to the American people while Congress deliberates. He was explicit in his warning to the Republicans. “This plan is the right thing to do right now,” he said. “You should pass it. And I intend to take that message to every corner of the country.”
Obama spoke at a low point in his presidency. His standing has been weakened by public dissatisfaction over the effects of high and persistent unemployment. But just as worrisome for the White House are questions about whether he is a leader with the strength and skills to make Washington work — one of the aftereffects of the just-concluded fight over raising the debt ceiling.
Obama spoke directly to the political mood in Washington. “I know there’s been a lot of skepticism about whether the politics of the moment will allow us to pass this jobs plan — or any jobs plan,” he said. “Already, we’re seeing the same old press releases and tweets flying back and forth. Already, the media has proclaimed that it’s impossible to bridge our differences.”
He noted that many in both parties believed that their differences can be resolved only by the next election.
“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,” Obama said. “Some of them are living week to week, paycheck to paycheck, even day to day. They need help, and they need it now.”
But even as he urged action now before politics consumes the capital, both sides knew that this speech was also a political call to arms.
Obama walked a fine line Thursday. His strong rhetoric and explicit challenge to Republicans, as well as the size and specifics of the package, were designed to appeal to his restive base. His call for the two parties to set aside politics long enough to enact some job-creating measures was aimed at swing voters disgusted by the debt-ceiling spectacle and the sense that Washington is badly broken.
Obama prodded Republicans to approve measures that he said many of them have supported in the past. He salted his package with proposals that he said would create hundreds of thousands of jobs and that White House officials hoped would strike Americans as sensible and appealing.