This advice appeals to me. It’s what I’d like to see happen. But I also think it’s wrong, and if I were advising President Obama, I’d advise him not to take it.
Let’s agree that what matters isn’t how many jobs you “get caught trying” to create, but how many jobs you actually create. There’s virtually no evidence that if Obama makes more speeches on jobs, his poll numbers will go up or the labor market will improve. There’s lots of evidence that if he passes policies that create more jobs, his poll numbers will go up and the labor market will improve. The question, then, isn’t how Obama can get “caught trying.” It’s how — or whether — he can succeed.
When presidents take a strong stand for or against policies, they polarize the policies. Under unified control of government — particularly under unified control of government with a filibuster-proof majority — that can make the policies easier to pass, as it consolidates party support. Under divided control of government, it makes them harder to pass, as it creates or hardens minority-party opposition.
A lot of observers wondered why the Obama administration didn’t push a payroll-tax cut in the 2010 elections. The reason, insiders said, was simple, if frustrating: If they did that, the Republican Party would publicly oppose it and they wouldn’t be able to pass it after the election. By staying quiet on the payroll-tax cut, they made it possible for Republicans to support it as part of the 2010 tax deal.
Recently, the Obama administration has been pushing an expansion of the payroll-tax cut. They want to extend it to employers, not just employees. But they’ve been more public about it. And sure enough, the GOP is suddenly finding itself opposed to a tax cut on business — man, polarization is a powerful force — and gripped by a sudden and, one imagines, soon-to-be-abandoned belief that tax cuts should be paid for.
All of which suggests that if any further jobs measures are going to pass, they’re going to have to start in backroom negotiations and only go public as part of a deal. Taking them public first in the hopes that you can then get them as part of backroom negotiations won’t work. So though I agree with Klain that the right political move for Obama is to push harder on jobs, if I were advising the president, I’d tell him to keep any policies that his legislative team thinks could actually pass out of his speeches. Because the right politics, in the end, won’t do him much good in November. The right jobs numbers will.