Like a getaway driver desperately trying to shake a tail, President Barack Obama executed a hairpin turn from deficits to jobs Thursday, daring Republicans to follow him.
The problem for Obama - even the fiery, focused Obama who addressed a joint session of Congress Thursday - is that his political fate in 2012 is tied to the unforgiving, largely uncontrollable metrics of economic misery.
And none of his potential GOP opponents will be held accountable if Obama’s $447 billion proposal fails to stem the economy’s ominous slide, while all of them will arguably profit if he fails.
“President Obama’s jobs plan comes 960 days too late,” said Mitt Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom, reflecting the lock-step thumbs-down the speech elicited from the 2012 Republican presidential field. “Millions of Americans have suffered through job loss and misery. I don’t think they’re in a mood to forgive his failure to lead on the economy.”
But the White House and Obama campaign officials feel they regained some of the initiative, and say his speech accomplished three major goals by reaffirming his leadership with a credible jobs bill, putting Republicans on the defensive, and bucking up demoralized Democrats, who have lately taken to musing publicly about their leader’s backbone.
A few weeks ago, before the flat-line August unemployment report prompted an abrupt course correction, Obama was more or less operating off the political playbook dictated by the Republican 2010 midterm landslide, embracing the party’s budget-cutting ethos and focusing on the deficit.
But Thursday night, he pivoted left, angrily demanding “immediate” action on a relatively modest jobs package, while promising retribution against anyone who stands in his way — by implication Romney, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and the entire GOP congressional leadership.
“The idea is to demand that Republicans do something to grow jobs immediately. If they don’t, if they vote no, then the country’s hardships will be laid at their feet,” explained American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten who worked closely with the White House on Obama’s plan to inject $30 billion into local governments to avert layoffs of teachers and other public employees.
Added a close Obama ally: “If they want to say no they have to pay the price… We had to challenge Republicans and I think we did that.”
Republicans aren’t entering any trap willingly. House GOP leaders, alive to the threat, sought to quickly defuse the political impact of Obama’s new focus. Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told reporters he planned to peel off several segments of Obama’s bill and pass them immediately, including trade bills, small business relief measures and regulatory reforms.
“The president’s speech wasn’t intended to be a transformative moment in American politics or some kind of bold New Deal plan to declare war on unemployment,” wrote Wilson Center scholar and former State Department official Aaron David Miller in POLITICO’s Arena.
“It was designed to be transactional…The Republicans might actually go for some of it because they know it won’t really address the jobs predicament the president is in. None of this is cynical; it’s just smart politics on both sides. Sadly smart politics won’t help reduce unemployment substantially or address the deficit. Welcome to our America circa 2011.”
The GOP’s presidential candidates, who bear none of the governing burdens of their congressional brethren, said they would have opposed, to a person, the debt ceiling deal that averted what every breathing economist predicted would have led to national default. Nor have the offered any specific plans for short-term job creation, apart from a menu of new tax cuts and regulatory relief they say will ultimately spur private business to start hiring again.
“It’s amazing how irrelevant that the Republican candidates have been in the debate over the economy. They have willfully put themselves on the sidelines,” says veteran Democratic consultant Mo Elleithee, who served as a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton during the 2008 primaries.
“Compare that to the situation three years ago. The presidential candidates on both sides played a vital role in all of these debates. They had real positions, they had to, things were so bad… This group is content to play follow the leader, except there’s no leader.”
But they don’t have to offer solutions. Obama does. The president’s approval numbers, which have recently sunk into the high 30’s, are virtually locked onto the consumer confidence index, weekly jobless claims and the gut-wrenching monthly employment reports that have come to dominate the American political and economic calendar.
Obama’s potential 2012 opponents have far less to fear from the Bureau of Labor Statistics than the president himself, and enjoy the freedom of movement the president himself capitalized on when he was savaging the Bush administration on Iraq, Afghanistan, the economy and health care during the 2008 campaign.
With similar gusto, the GOP field happily pounced on Obama during Wednesday’s POLITICO/MSNBC debate, with Romney quipping, “This president is a nice guy, but he doesn’t have a clue how to get this country going again.”
When MSNBC asked White House press secretary Jay Carney if Obama’s aides made last-minute changes to address the criticism of Republicans, he replied, “Zero. No changes.”
But Perry, for one, didn’t even wait for hear the specifics of Thursday’s speech before trashing Obama.
“The Obama administration is… a problem for this country,” he said. “Mr. President, we cannot spend our way to prosperity, it does not work.”
Later, he released a statement, sticking with his commitment to deficit reduction, even though recent polls show that twice as many Americans prioritize job creation over budget cutting. “Like the president’s earlier $800 billion stimulus program, this proposal offers little hope for millions of Americans who have lost jobs on his watch, and taxpayers who are rightly concerned that their children will inherit a mountain of debt,” Perry said.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) did not attend the speech, listening to it instead on a radio as she was waiting for a flight. She also offered a pre-buttal, arguing that Obama was “politically paralyzed” and “philosophically incapable of doing what needs to be done.”
Democrats who have been in open revolt over what they perceive as Obama’s willingness to compromise with Republicans were overwhelmingly positive about the newly energized president.
“What’s important is not just the speech, but the president’s willingness to really go out an fight for it,” Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told POLITICO. “This is what people are looking for. This is what people expect from their president.”
Now Obama will try to sell the plan, traveling to Richmond today and Columbus, Ohio, next week to pitch the plan, with more trips to come over the next several months, aides say.
“This isn’t a one-shot deal,” said a person close to Obama. “He will be sticking with this.”
In his appearance before Congress, the president spoke at a faster pace than his typically rolling cadence, as if to stress the need for speed and to project a fighting image. He based nearly all his proposals on joint GOP-Democratic initiatives, baiting Republicans to brave the wrath of their own constituents in unusually unvarnished, workmanlike language.
In ways subtle and overt, Obama dared Republicans to oppose him.
“There’s a bridge that needs repair between Ohio and Kentucky that’s on one of the busiest trucking routes in North America,”Obama said, identifying the artery that connects Senate Minority Mitch McConnell’s home state to House Speaker John Boehner’s congressional district.
“I know there’s been a lot of skepticism about whether the politics of the moment will allow us to pass this jobs plan – or any jobs plan,” he added.
“Already, we’re seeing the same old press releases and tweets flying back and forth. Already, the media has proclaimed that it’s impossible to bridge our differences… But know this: the next election is fourteen months away. And the people who sent us here – the people who hired us to work for them – they don’t have the luxury of waiting fourteen months. Some of them are living week to week; paycheck to paycheck; even day to day.
“They need help, and they need it now.”
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