First the good news: Liberals who were looking for Obama to "go big" -- to make an aggressive case for immediate action on unemployment and to use his bully pulpit to "change the political conversation" -- got more or less what they wanted from the president's jobs speech on Thursday night. The Nation's Ari Berman captured the tone of a lot of liberal tweeting in the immediate aftermath of the speech: "This was the Obama we've all been waiting for."
The president called for new infrastructure spending, new incentives to encourage businesses to hire, extended and expanded payroll tax cuts for both employers and the employed, help for homeowners who want to refinance their mortgages, and more aid to state and local government. All together, he outlined a reasonably hefty set of proposals. He never specified a price tag, but leaks before the speech suggested that the total cost would come in around $450 billion -- which the president promised would be paid for by additional long-term budget cuts tacked on top of the totals already agreed to by Congress during the debt ceiling negotiations, as well as by higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations.
All in all, the "American Jobs Act" adds up to considerably more than most Democrats were expecting. It could even make a difference if enacted in short order. And in contrast to some previous Obama administration attempts to roll out new policy initiatives, the new effort appears professionally and efficiently orchestrated. The base is pleased by the surprise big number and Republicans were forcefully put on the spot.
But now the bad news. There's no particular point to getting down and dirty and crunching all the numbers in the new plan, because there's zero chance of anything like it passing. With each reiteration of the president's favorite mantra of the night: "You should pass this bill now!" you could feel the resolve of the Republicans in the audience to ignore the president's passionate call for action hardening into stone. This is not a party that responds to bully pulpit exhortations from the other side, it is not a party that will ever agree to raise taxes on the wealthy, and it is most certainly not a party that is going to commit to a large scale spending program in the short term.
The GOP may well accept extending and deepening the payroll tax cuts, but that is likely to be the limit of their enthusiasm for the president's proposals, and the notion that such tax cuts will be paid for by ending subsidies to oil companies is ludicrous. Republicans also certainly won't be rushing to loosen the cash flow taps for infrastructure spending and aid to state and local governments. We've just spent 18 months watching Republicans strive to cut government spending as quickly and harshly as possible. The idea that they will suddenly turn around and embrace the kind of stimulus spending that they've been attacking as big government socialism since the day Obama took office is just nuts.
Obama knows this. Everyone in Washington knows this. And that's why Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was exactly right in his comment before the speech Thursday morning: "This isn't a jobs plan; it's a reelection plan." Obama conceded as much, near the end of the speech, when he declared in a tone loaded up with as much menace as he can muster that he intends to take his message "to every corner of this country." He tried, on a couple of occasions to pretend otherwise, giving nods to the "skepticism about whether the politics of the moment will allow us to pass this jobs plan -- or any jobs plan," and to the cynicism of reporters who had been asking all week "what will this speech mean for the President?"
Obama was being a little too cute in his meta-analysis. Which is not to say his strategy is wrong. If you believe that austerity is exactly the wrong economic policy for an economy teetering on the edge of recession, then you believe in taking action along the lines of what Obama has proposed. If Republicans reject it, it is perfectly legitimate to campaign from now until next November on a platform that paints the GOP as actively obstructing action that will help the unemployed.
That's what this speech was about. The president now has something to campaign on. He's taken some initiative, and now his opposition is faced with two equally unpalatable choices: continue to be the Party of No, and give the president fodder for the ensuing campaign, or give the president a political victory.
Well played, in general, but unlikely to help the economy avert a double-dip recession, or bring down the unemployment rate.