Assuming an unaccustomed feisty, combative and definitely not professorial demeanor, President Obama defied congressional Republicans not to pass the new stimulus package he presented to a joint session of Congress on Thursday night. Of course, Obama didn’t call it “stimulus.” He didn’t name the program that his supporters believe saved the economy from free fall, and his detractors insist didn’t work. Instead, he called his new plan the American Jobs Act, attempting to enlist public support by confronting unemployment, the primary concern of Americans. The purpose of the plan, he said, is “to put more people back to work and more money in the pockets of those who are working.” We know that the economic crisis perseveres because of the lack of demand, which in turn is related to the inability of the record numbers of unemployed to spend. (Consumer spending accounts for at least 60 percent of the economy.)
Over and over, the president exhorted Congress to “pass this jobs plan right away.” He reminded the Republicans that many of them, including 50 who are in Congress today, are on record for supporting many of the plan’s provisions. Obama offered tax-averse Republicans a stimulus plan that is 60 percent tax reduction — something they can’t refuse to endorse without being overtly hypocritical. He promised deficit-obsessed politicians that everything in the plan will be completely paid for, daring them once more to spurn needed revenue by refusing to let the Bush-era tax cuts expire. Obama will charge the congressional super committee on deficit reduction to add the cost of the new jobs program ($447 billion) to the $1 trillion in budget cuts they must identify by Christmas at the latest. Challenging also his liberal base, Obama defended modifications to Medicare and Medicaid to provide urgently needed funds.
The president was adamant, however, that he would not “let this economic crisis be used as an excuse to wipe out the basic protections that Americans have counted on for decades.” Obama rejects
the argument that says for the economy to grow, we have to roll back protections that ban hidden fees by credit card companies, or rules that keep our kids from being exposed to mercury, or laws that prevent the health insurance industry from shortchanging patients. I reject the idea that we have to strip away collective bargaining rights to compete in a global economy. We shouldn’t be in a race to the bottom, where we try to offer the cheapest labor and the worst pollution standards.
Speaking plainly for the benefit of his national audience and implicitly challenging Republicans to oppose him, Obama contended that we have to choose our priorities. We can relieve the wealthiest Americans of the responsibility to pay taxes or we can renovate schools and rehire laid-off teachers, but we can’t do both. We can keep the tax loopholes that allow the most profitable corporations in history to pay no taxes (or almost none), or we can give tax breaks to small businesses to encourage the hiring of the unemployed. We can’t do both. This isn’t political grandstanding or class warfare, the president said, anticipating his critics. “This is simple math.”
Obama bounced the Republicans’ rhetoric right back at them: “So for everyone who speaks so passionately about making life easier for ‘job creators’ [the Republican term for the wealthiest Americans], this plan is for you,” because “Everyone here knows that small businesses are where most new jobs begin.” He addressed Grover Norquist and the vast majority of Republicans who have signed his pledge — “I know that some of you have sworn oaths to never raise any taxes on anyone for as long as you live.” But, Obama said, the oath-takers will in effect raise middle-class taxes if they allow the tax cut passed earlier this year to expire. He implied that the Tea Party and other far-right conservatives who want to dismantle the government by defunding it are not the patriots they claim to be. They are instead un-American because they are invalidating American history: It is the government that was responsible for the national infrastructure of roads and rail, the education of its citizens, the funding of scientific research — all of which contributed to the development of the world’s greatest economy and unprecedented technological innovation.
As he has done before, Obama exploited his bully pulpit. He called on Americans who agree with him to make their views known to their representatives. He pledged to visit every corner of the country to promote his new jobs plan. His opponents will say that this is the opening salvo in his re-election campaign. Cynics believe that they don’t want the economy to improve because that will redound to Obama’s credit and strengthen his chances for re-election, thus defeating what many Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch O’Connell and presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann, have defined as their first priority: limiting Obama’s presidency to a single term.
It remains to be seen how much success the president will have in securing the passage of the American Jobs Act over Republican opposition. But if he pursues his goal with the same vigor and determination he demonstrated Thursday night, he may win over independents and disaffected Democrats who have abandoned him.