Much more than the health of the American economy is riding on the $300-billion (U.S.) jobs plan that Barack Obama is set to take to Congress.
After appearing to give in to Republicans during this summer’s debt ceiling standoff, Mr. Obama can ill afford folding again if he is to salvage the prestige and moral suasion that normally accrues to a U.S. president.
As he prepares to unveil his job creation proposals in a speech to a rare joint session of Congress on Thursday night, Mr. Obama is desperate to undo the impression among Democrats and Republicans alike that he is something of a pushover, more eager to avoid a battle than fight one.
The conciliatory approach that has been his stock in trade since entering the White House has not yielded obvious benefits for Mr. Obama.
The White House had hoped that the President’s calls for compromise during the debt ceiling showdown would make him look reasonable in the face of Republican intransigence and put voters squarely in his camp.
Instead, Mr. Obama’s approval rating plummeted along with that of Congress as voters cast aspersions on the entire political class in Washington. By the end of August, only one in three white voters approved of Mr. Obama’s performance, seriously threatening his odds of re-election.
“There is a race to the bottom between him and Congress in the estimation of the American public,” Rutgers University political science professor Ross Baker said in an interview. “He’s hoping Congress will beat him to the bottom.”
Still, Mr. Obama is facing an onslaught of criticism from Democrats for failing to fight for the policies he espouses. He did not help his image when he originally scheduled his jobs speech on the same night Republicans were holding a presidential leadership debate, only to back down in the face of calls from GOP leaders to postpone his address by a day.
Mr. Obama agreed to move his speech to Thursday night, even though it meant accepting second billing to the opening game of the National Football League season. Instead of a nationally televised address in prime time, Mr. Obama’s speech is reduced to a pregame show before kick-off.
“He has sort of lost the sense of the power and mystique of the presidency,” Andy Stern, the former head of the Service Employees International Union, told the beltway newspaper Politico. “There’s also a sense that people aren’t scared of him. That’s dangerous.”
Of course, the tone and content of the jobs speech are more important than its timing. Politically speaking, how hard Mr. Obama fights for his proposals could matter as much as whether he actually succeeds in getting them through a Republican-dominated Congress.
The $300-billion plan Mr. Obama is expected to unveil is smaller than many economists and Democrats think is necessary to make a serious dent in an unemployment rate that could still exceed 9 per cent in 2012. But it may be the biggest package the White House thinks it can credibly fight for given the focus in Congress on the deficit.
A renewal of this year’s payroll tax cut for employees in 2012, and perhaps its extension to employers, is likely to be the single biggest item in the plan. The White House argues Republicans cannot say no to this.
“You say you’re the party of tax cuts? Well, then, prove you’ll fight just as hard for tax cuts for middle-class families as you do for oil companies and the most affluent Americans,” Mr. Obama said in baiting Republicans during a Labour Day speech in Detroit.
Other elements of the job creation plan – including more spending on infrastructure, the extension of unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless and direct aid to state governments to prevent the layoffs of teachers, police officers and firefighters – are likely to face a wall of GOP opposition.
White House press secretary Jay Carney insisted on Wednesday that all of the measures proposed in the plan will be “paid for” and would not add to the long-term deficit. But he would not specify whether they would be offset by future spending cuts or tax increases.
That would be to pick another fight before finishing the one you’re in.