Leading from the front

    We all know, of course, that the odds of President Obama steering his entire jobs package through a recalcitrant Republican House are roughly equivalent to Rick Perry’s prospects of winning a Nobel Prize for science.Obama’s speech in the House chamber last night was never going to miraculously sway the minds of GOP members who are politically invested in ongoing economic misery. Their overriding aim, after all, is to ensure that the economy stays in the tank until election day. The last thing they want to do is put people back to work on Obama’s watch, and thereby risk boosting his prospects for a second term.But even though Obama is largely stymied on the policy front, he finally seems to understand that he has been liberated on the political front. Last night, for a change, he behaved like a real leader. No more leading from behind. This time, he framed the terms of debate, demanded (rather than professorially requested) that the No crowd take action on a tax cut-heavy jobs package that swing voters and business leaders will deem commonsensical – and he warned in no uncertain terms that if Republicans refuse to pass the key elements that they have embraced in the past, he will assail them on the stump as do-nothing obstructionists.The overall jobs package, according to Mark Zandi (chief economist at Moody’s Analytics and a key McCain campaign adviser in ’08), would add 1.9 million jobs and grow the economy by two percent. The dilemma for Republicans is that most of its elements are not controversial. One piece of the Obama package, aimed at finding temporary work for the unemployed, is modeled after a Republican-backed program in Georgia. Another piece, which would bankroll job-creating construction projects via an independent fund supported by private money, is modeled after a bipartisan Senate bill co-sponsored by Texas Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison. And another piece – a crucial one – would slash the amount of money that workers currently contribute toward Social Security benefits; in other words, his proposed payroll tax cut would put more money into workers’ pockets, so that it could be spent in the consumer economy. This tax cut may not be the ideal or direct way to boost jobs, but it’s at least a doable option. The payroll levy was temporarily reduced during Obama’s negotiations with Republicans last December; Obama’s new cut would be deeper. Naturally, Republicans have been making noises about opposing this new cut (since it’s Obama’s idea, they don’t like it), despite their ideological devotion to tax cuts. Which explains why Obama frontally challenged them last night, in this speech passage:”Pass this jobs bill, and the typical working family will get a $1500 (payroll) tax cut next year. Fifteen hundred dollars that would have been taken out of your pocket will go into your pocket. This expands on the tax cut that Democrats and Republicans already passed for this year. If we allow that tax cut to expire – if we refuse to act – middle-class families will get hit with a tax increase at the worst possible time. We can’t let that happen. I know that some of you have sworn oaths to never raise any taxes on anyone for as long as you live. Now is not the time to carve out an exception and raise middle-class taxes…”In other words, if the House GOP jerks the knee and says No to that one, Obama is prepared to fight for swing-voting independents by tagging Republicans as obstructionists who support tax hikes on the middle class – even as they continue to support tax breaks for the big corporations.Most importantly, however, Obama provided a broad context for his jobs package. People expect Washington to act on our economic ills, he said. Washington has a vital role to play, he said. The GOP’s laissez faire philosophy is a relic of the distant past, he said. Indeed, this key passage foreshadows the role-of-government themes he will undoubtedly emphasize in the 2012 campaign:”In fact, this larger notion that the only thing we can do to restore prosperity is just dismantle government, refund everybody’s money, and let everyone write their own rules, and tell everyone they’re on their own – that’s not who we are. That’s not the story of America….We all remember Abraham Lincoln as the leader who saved our Union.  Founder of the Republican Party. But in the middle of a civil war, he was also a leader who looked to the future – a Republican President who mobilized government to build the Transcontinental Railroad, launch the National Academy of Sciences, set up the first land grant colleges. And leaders of both parties have followed the example he set.”Ask yourselves – where would we be right now if the people who sat here before us decided not to build our highways, not to build our bridges, our dams, our airports? What would this country be like if we had chosen not to spend money on public high schools, or research universities, or community colleges? Millions of returning heroes, including my grandfather, had the opportunity to go to school because of the G.I. Bill. Where would we be if they hadn’t had that chance? How many jobs would it have cost us if past Congresses decided not to support the basic research that led to the Internet and the computer chip? What kind of country would this be if this chamber had voted down Social Security or Medicare just because it violated some rigid idea about what government could or could not do? How many Americans would have suffered as a result?”What’s important about that passage is that Obama removed the role-of-government debate from the realm of the abstract, and framed it in the everyday language that reflects 150 years of factual reality. To buttress his own shaky political prospects, he needs to do more of that.Obama’s critics, in their inevitable attempts to ignore the truth of that passage, are naturally dismissing it as mere campaign rhetoric; indeed, they’re naturally contending that his jobs speech was basically a political document that used the congressional Republicans as props. The obvious response, of course, is that presidential speeches down through the ages have fused policy with politics; to believe otherwise is to be a history-denier. Besides, it’s hard to accept the GOP’s complaint with a straight face, given its own stated intention to play politics with Obama’s future (Mitch McConnell, autumn ’10: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president”). If that’s how the Republicans want to play it, the Obama has no choice but to similarly engage. And perhaps with some canny politicking, he might even be able to shame them into some semblance of cooperation on the jobs front. Aggrieved Americans might appreciate that.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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