The Obama administration is weighing whether to go big or go small in their jobs plan next week. I think the answer is clear: they should go big so they can go small.
When planning a speech like this one, the White House has to worry about the paradox of presidential leadership. The media, the voters, and the Democratic base want the president to “lead.” They want him to “fight.” But the more he identifies himself with particular solutions, the more he poisons those solutions for the Republican Party. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) simply cannot come out and say that “the president’s jobs plan is a sensible, pragmatic package for moving America forward that correctly takes the best ideas from both sides into account.” The moment Obama mentions a policy in a big speech, it becomes that much less likely to pass a divided Congress.
Perhaps that doesn’t matter. Perhaps nothing can get done right now no matter how adroitly the politics are handled. But if you do believe that anything can get done, then what’s certain is that nothing that is overly identified with president can get done. Republicans can’t give Obama a win.
If Obama gives a speech focused only on the putatively bipartisan ideas that can pass, he hurts himself on two levels: his speech won’t be very inspiring, as those policies aren’t very inspiring, and he will have taken the most plausible compromise proposals and made them less likely to win Republican support. The White House political team would like respond to this analysis by saying that occupying the middle makes clear how extreme the Republicans are, but that’s been the strategy for a year now and Obama is at 40 percent in the polls. Perhaps it’s time to try something different.
So go big. I’m not a believer in the power of presidential rhetoric to move the opposition, but there’s no doubt that, when yoked to the right policy proposals and legislative strategy, it’s capable of moving the agenda. And this is a good time for the Obama administration to move the agenda. The deficit issue is quiet as we wait for the supercommittee to report. A stream of new data has underscored the fragility -- or perhaps total absence -- of the labor market recovery and the need for more support. This is a good time for Obama to offer a jobs vision that is equal to the size of the problem and capable of changing the national conversation. And if that agenda doesn’t pass -- and it almost certainly won’t -- then the old standbys that the administration thought might pass will be unsullied and will look like a pragmatic and even painful compromise.