Obama’s challenge: ‘work for people who elected us’ – or else

By J Brooks Spector 9 September 2011

Despite being panned by some quick-off-the-mark Republicans as “the worst pre-game show ever”,  - the American football season started just after his speech - Barack Obama told a joint session of the US Congress to pass his new plan to create jobs or he’d take his case across the country directly to the voters. He reminded them, by the way, about an election in 14 months. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Republican speaker of the house John Boehner and house majority leader Eric Cantor made some conciliatory noises over the possibility of supporting elements of Obama’s proposals. However, the candidates for the party’s nomination to run against Obama next year gave a thumbs-down. At least initially, the Republicans seem unclear on a unified response to a speech that was both policy and campaign stump – score one for the Democrats on this.

The key elements of Obama’s plan were a commitment for spending on those “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects like bridges and school renovations, support for teacher salaries, an extension for unemployment benefits, a (temporary) reduction in the payroll tax that funds Social Security, tax incentives and tax breaks that support adding workers to businesses, ensuring the marginal tax rates on the rich are at least as high as those on people who earn much less (echoing Warren Buffet’s recent public astonishment that his tax rate is lower than his secretary’s) and a review of government regulations to cut out rules that impede employment. He also gave his commitment to pay for the whole thing by cuts in government spending over the next decade via the special committee that came out of the debt ceiling agreement.

Throughout his unusually blunt speech, Obama repeated his call for Congress to “pass this bill”, a measure he dubbed The American Jobs Act, which his administration will submit to Congress in detail next week. For each element of his proposed plan he called attention to the fact that in the past several years, both Republicans and Democrats had, at various times, supported all of these proposals. “The question is whether, in the face of an ongoing national crisis, we can stop the political circus and actually do something to help the economy.”
While Obama issued no figure for the cost, White House aides had briefed the media and key politicians in advance that the cost of the overall proposal would be around $450 billion – about half the stimulus package of the first half of the Obama administration. Republicans have consistently called this stimulus package wasteful and ineffective – even as the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office offered an evaluation that it did have a real, discernible and positive effect on the economy, helping ameliorate the recession.

In a way the impact of the speech was somewhat blunted by a near-simultaneous announcement of a heightened risk of a still-unconfirmed yet credible threat of some sort of terror attack that presumably would be timed to coincide with commemorations of the 10th  anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon. Only moments after the speech, television networks were alternating their interviews with the “talking heads” analysts dissecting Obama’s speech with some fairly breathless comments over the security threat.

The night before Obama’s speech, eight Republican candidates had jousted at the Ronald Reagan Library. The resulting debate made it increasingly clear that there are only two likely challengers for the Republican nomination – Texas governor Rick Perry and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

In the most recent polling, Perry forged ahead in support from likely Republican voters. However, some of his comments during the debate such as his charge that Social Security (the government’s old age pension system) has just been a Ponzi scheme on people seem almost preternaturally designed to stun and scare the independent voters who are the key to a general election victory. Romney, on the other hand, seemed to pander to the Tea Party movement in an effort to seize the imagination of more rightist voters. Given these demonstrations, incredulous blogosphere comments on the debate included things like: Wait a minute – here are eight people who say they hate the US government but want to be in charge of it; as well as, here is a gaggle of would-be candidates that cries out for a PGA-style cut.

Much of Wednesday’s debate was around whether Romney or Perry had the better job-creation record. Perry charged former Massachusetts Democratic governor Mike Dukakis (the Democratic candidate for president in 1988 and a virtual byword for charismatically challenged leadership) had had a better jobs creation record than Romney as a pro-business, pro-growth governor.

And that only elicited a retort from Romney that George W Bush’s record on jobs was better than Perry’s. Besides provoking some astonishment at Perry’s seeming endorsement of Dukakis’ economic policies – probably the nicest thing any Republican has ever said about Dukakis – the exchange made it clear that this coming general election will be fought over new jobs and economic growth.

A New York Times reporter wrote that if there was any doubt about what Romney thought was the most significant moment of Wednesday night’s debate, an email from his campaign made it totally clear. The subject heading of the email read: “RICK PERRY: RECKLESS, WRONG ON SOCIAL SECURITY”. Romney aides add that Perry’s writing about the failure of the federal retirement programme, and his refusal to back away from them equalled a fatal flaw in his candidacy.

Nonetheless, veteran Washington observer, John Judis, described the enormity of Mitt Romney’s current challenge in the campaign as: “Romney is the Nelson Rockefeller of today’s Republican party.… He might have won the presidency in 1960 or 1968, but he could never win the Republican nomination for president.

“Romney was raised in Michigan, not Utah; he learned economics at Harvard Business School; he made his mark as a businessman and governor in liberal Massachusetts. He has tried to recreate himself as a conservative Republican, but it simply has not worked. He could be the candidate by default against someone like Michele Bachmann, because most of the Republican electorate does understand that she is unelectable, but someone like Perry takes all the air out of his candidacy.”

Meanwhile, with unemployment still above 9%, it seems both logical and inevitable for job creation to be the measuring stick for presidential political success. Barack Obama’s support has continued to slide, although general trust and support for Congress is now zeroing in on single digits, giving the president at least the chance to find a toehold to make good on his threat to carry his message over the heads of Congress. Depending on how Congress, voters and economic indicators respond to Obama’s proposals, he may just be able to find this speech and its challenges will help him gain ground – and some oxygen for his chances next year. DM

Read more:

  • Obama Exhorts Congress on Jobs Plan in The New York Times;
  • Obama’s Speech to Congress on Jobs (the full text) in The New York Times;
  • Romney Hits Perry Again on Social Security in The New York Times;
  • Analyzing Obama’s Job Speech (on line Q and A with Robert G. Kaiser, Washington Post associate editor);
  • On the Tone and Structure of the Obama Jobs Speech (James Fallows is a veteran White House speechwriter) in The Atlantic.



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