With the nation’s economy in a particularly rough patch and his own re-election prospects in doubt, President Obama told Congress it’s time to “stop the political circus and actually do something to help the economy.”
“The people of this country work hard to meet their responsibilities,” Obama told a joint session of Congress. “The question tonight is whether we’ll meet ours.”
Specifically, the President offered a $447 billion “American Jobs Act” designed to help those 14 million Americans out of work. It includes extending the payroll tax cut, extending jobless benefits, a “returning heroes” hiring tax credit for unemployed veterans, a $4,000 tax credit for hiring long-term unemployed workers, $35 billion to keep laid-off teachers and first responders in their jobs, and some $100 billion to be spent on major school construction and infrastructure renovation.
“The purpose of the American Jobs Act is simple: to put more people back to work and more money in the pockets of those who are working,” Obama said. “It will create more jobs for construction workers, more jobs for teachers, more jobs for veterans, and more jobs for the long-term unemployed.”
“It will provide a tax break for companies who hire new workers, and it will cut payroll taxes in half for every working American and every small business,” he said. “It will provide a jolt to an economy that has stalled, and give companies confidence that if they invest and hire, there will be customers for their products and services.”
“Everything in this bill will be paid for,” Obama insisted. “Everything.”
To do so, he proposes closing corporate tax loopholes and increasing the tax bite on the wealthiest Americans – that alone guarantees a fight with congressional Republicans – as well as challenging his deficit reduction panel (which met for the first time Thursday) to go beyond its $1.5 trillion goal.
He reminded lawmakers that both the US Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO support large a federal investment in infrastructure construction and repair, which he likened to Abraham Lincoln’s push to build the transcontinental railroad and to establish the first land grant colleges.
While rejecting the charge that he engages in class warfare, he insisted that “millionaires and billionaires” and the largest corporations should “pay their fair share” in taxes.
“What’s the best way to grow the economy and create jobs?” he asked. “Should we keep tax loopholes for oil companies? Or should we use that money to give small business owners a tax credit when they hire new workers? Because we can’t afford to do both.”
Unlike his delivery of the more staid State of the Union speeches to Congress, Obama was fired up and insistent – speaking over the heads of lawmakers to voters (particularly independents as well as his own dispirited Democratic base), to small business owners and entrepreneurs, and to those abroad worried about the US place in the world economy. In a way, it was his "Give 'em hell, Harry!" moment, reminiscent of Harry Truman's come-from-behind re-election in 1948.
“This plan is the right thing to do right now,” he demanded. “You should pass it. And I intend to take that message to every corner of this country.”
Thursday night’s speech comes at a critical time – and a political low ebb – for Obama.
Unemployment seems stuck above 9 percent. As if to underscore the breadth of the problem, just hours before Obama’s speech it was reported that unemployment claims last week rose to nearly 415,000.
Obama is a proven and gifted speaker, as when he talked about race or his strategy on Afghanistan. But he’s been talking of the need to “jump-start job creation” since his first address to Congress a month after he took office. And with some 6 million Americans among the long-term unemployed (and many of the rest of the population worried about their employment situation), rhetoric – no matter how eloquent – goes only so far.
Will Obama’s proposals fly in Congress – in the Republican-controlled House and in a Senate where it’s easy for a small number of members to prevent legislation from going forward?
“The first stimulus didn't do it. Why would another?” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor Thursday morning. “This isn't a jobs plan. It is a re-election plan.”
At this point in the 2012 presidential race, anything a candidate (including the incumbent) does has to be seen in the election context. On Friday, Obama was to continue stumping for his jobs plan at the University of Richmond (in House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s district), and next week he’ll be in Columbus, Ohio (House Speaker John Boehner’s home state).
Still, there have been some indications of bipartisan cooperation – on extending the payroll tax “holiday” through 2012, for example, estimated to save the average household $1,500. Rep. Cantor (R) also has expressed support for infrastructure spending.
At a Monitor-sponsored press lunch Thursday, Mr. Cantor put it this way: “The American people don’t expect Republicans and Democrats to agree on every issue but given the times we’re in the people who elected us expect us to be able to set aside those differences and work towards finding some commonality.”