What will Obama say about jobs? The pre-speech maneuvering begins.

In the run-up to his much-anticipated jobs speech Thursday, Obama challenged the GOP to put 'country before party.' The Republican response: 'Your economic proposals don't work.'

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File
Obama speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on Aug. 31.

President Obama and congressional Republicans have begun maneuvering for political position prior to Obama’s much-anticipated speech Thursday on jobs and the economy.

Obama has dropped only a few hints as to what the speech will say. In a Labor Day address in Detroit he indicated that it would include a push for more federal funding for road and bridge construction, and an extension of the current payroll tax reduction.

But his main message in Detroit was this: if it doesn’t pass, it will be the Republicans’ fault.

“We’re going to see if we’ve got some straight shooters in congress. We’re going to see if congressional Republicans will put country before party,” Obama told a largely Democratic crowd. “We’ll give them a plan, and then we’ll say, do you want to create jobs? Then put our construction workers back to work rebuilding America.”

This did not sit well with the Senate’s top Republican, minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. In remarks prepared for delivery on the chamber floor Tuesday he bristled at the implication that it would be unpatriotic to not support Obama’s proposals.

“With all due respect, Mr. President, there’s a much simpler reason for opposing your economic proposals that has nothing to do with politics: they don’t work,” said Senator McConnell.

McConnell noted that Washington does not feel the rest of the country’s economic pain. Its economy is booming, as the federal government gets bigger and bigger, he said.

McConnell then called into question the very idea behind Obama’s speech – that the nation’s government needs to do something big, and fast.

“At this point, I think most people have safely concluded that the problem with our economy isn’t that Washington is doing too little, but that Washington is doing too much already,” he said.

House Republicans weren’t as combative. Perhaps that reflects the reality that voters rate them even lower than they rate the president at the moment.

In a new Washington Post/ABC poll, only 28 percent of respondents approved of the job performance of Republicans in Congress. Obama’s job approval rating was 43 percent, a new personal low.

On Tuesday Speaker of the House John Boehner and House Republican Leader Eric Cantor sent Obama a letter asking for a meeting to discuss Obama’s proposals prior to his speech.

The letter listed policy proposals that Republicans and Democrats might agree on, such as passage of new free trade agreements with South Korea, Panama, and Columbia.

Neither Republicans nor the administration should consider their jobs packages an “all-or-nothing situation”, wrote Boehner and Cantor.

Is it possible that Obama and Boehner could strike some kind of bargain and produce another piece of legislation aimed at getting the economy moving again? (Don’t use the “stimulus” word. That’s got a bad reputation in Washington at the moment.)

Anything is possible in politics, so it’s possible. Republicans might agree to spend some limited amount on highway infrastructure projects. Couple that with an endorsement by the president of an extension of the payroll tax cut, and perhaps some other tax reductions and one might get a bill that could pass.

But at a recent Brookings Institution seminar titled, What President Obama Should Propose in His Speech on Jobs and the Economy, economists held out little hope for a grand agreement.

“I think realistically the only policy the House of Representatives would approve is the tax cuts,” said Brookings senior fellow Martin Baily.

Extending the payroll tax rebate would simply extend the status quo, not give the economy an extra boost, said Baily.

Another much-discussed tax proposal – a tax holiday for corporations to repatriate cash they have earned overseas and have parked in foreign banks, is a “bad idea”, said Brookings tax policy expert William Gale.

“When we did this earlier in the decade, there was no discernable effect on jobs,” said Gale.

What about the free trade agreement with South Korea? That is a good idea, and should be done, said Michael Mussa, a senior fellow from the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

“But if we’re concerned with what’s going to have an effect over the next year or two, then I don’t think passing the free trade arrangement with Korea and other countries is going to do that much,” said Mr. Mussa.

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