After three weeks of buildup, the stakes for President Barack Obama’s jobs speech Thursday couldn’t be higher — and the expectations couldn’t be lower.
Republicans are so certain he won’t offer anything new that some aren’t even attending. Democrats are questioning why the White House is pouring so much of its capital into another big speech. And both parties are skeptical that any concrete action will come of it in Congress.
But for Obama, the speech is not only likely to be his last, best chance to take a serious stab at jolting the economy; it’s also an opportunity to rebalance the debate in Washington, where Republicans have been steering the agenda since the November midterm elections. His task is nearly impossible: appease liberals, appeal to independents, win over some Republicans and make a compelling case to Washington-weary voters.
Here are five things to watch for Thursday night and in the days after:
Substance, not just size, matters
Even if the price tag satisfies his Democratic base, the proposals may not.
Progressives want Obama to ignore practical political considerations — i.e., Republicans control the House — and offer a package on par with the magnitude of the problem. That means a plan worth at least $300 billion, with few tax cuts and lots of money for government-financed jobs, direct state aid and infrastructure projects.
They are way past viewing the GOP as a willing partner, and they’re wondering whether the president will agree and pitch a package that appeals to voters, not Capitol Hill Republicans.
“We feel that the severity of unemployment, the severity of the economic downturn requires a lot more government intervention — requires a bigger package to begin to revive this economy and bring this unemployment rate down,” Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said Wednesday on MSNBC.
But Obama is desperate to nudge the economy toward a more convincing recovery in any way he can. Winning passage of a jobs package this fall may be the only concrete way to improve his chances at a second term — and Republicans are the ones he will really need to make it happen. That means a package weighted more toward tax cuts and public-private partnerships than liberals would like.
“The important factor here is not the top-line number,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday during the daily briefing. “It is the substance beneath the number.”
As details leaked Wednesday of a roughly $300 billion plan, with more than half of it eaten up by extending existing tax breaks, some Democrats are already saying that neither the substance nor the size of the package is good enough.
Conciliatory or confrontational?
Fair warning: The Obama who shows up Thursday night may be different than the one who hits the road Friday, heading to Richmond to campaign for the package.
Standing in front of Congress, Obama will be urgent and insistent, challenging lawmakers to put the economy ahead of their respective parties and to act on his proposals before the end of the year.
The question is whether Obama will go after Republicans more directly in the speech, as he tends to do on the stump. In essence, whether he will name names as they sit before him and put them on the spot. They are the party of tax cuts. So why are they signaling opposition to extending the payroll tax for workers?
A partisan tone won’t sit well with Republicans, who are already casting the speech as political, particularly after the White House’s fumbled attempt to schedule it on the same night as the Republican presidential debate. In a pre-emptive strike, House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor positioned themselves this week as arbiters of compromise.
“The best thing for us as we look towards the next three or four months is to focus on delivering results to the people of this country,” Cantor said Wednesday. “We need to build consensus, and that is going to require us all not to impugn motives or to question patriotism.”
Obama and his aides often say that voters don’t like the Washington blame game, so to engage in that when millions are tuned in would be a notable shift in strategy.
So Democrats, who really want to see Obama play rough with his adversaries, may have to wait until he leaves Washington.
A deficit of deficit talk
Obama has tried for months to make a double-edged, seemingly contradictory argument: The economy needs a short-term government stimulus and a long-term plan to cut government spending.
But for Thursday night, at least, Obama won’t dwell on the nuanced approach, which makes sense to economists and close observers of the Washington debate but can get lost in translation to the broader public.
Obama will challenge the 12-member congressional supercommittee to exceed its $1.5 trillion goal for budget savings — setting a higher target that would allow additional money to fund tax breaks and other stimulus spending.
The “very specific” deficit recommendations that Obama promised last month won’t come until next week, at the earliest.
Still, how Obama balances the two issues in his speech will be watched closely by Democrats, many of whom would rather the president put aside deficit reduction in favor of job creation for as long as the economy remains troubled.
It’s not the speech, it’s the follow-up
Obama speaks during the dinner hour on the East Coast and during the workday on the West Coast, and the broad outlines of the package are already known — not exactly a recipe for big Nielsen ratings.
In Washington, a handful of Republican lawmakers are boycotting it, including Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois, Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia and Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina. Even some Democrats are cynical about the prospect of another whip-cream speech — tasty but not filling.
“The question isn’t, what will the speech say. The question is, what does he do after the speech is over,” a Democratic aide said.
Officials familiar with the White House deliberations say Obama is prepared to make the case every day, in every way, that Congress must do something to jolt the economy.
The problem is, his supporters have heard these promises before, only to see the president get sidetracked.
So things got a little awkward last week between Obama and Boehner, who infuriated the White House by refusing the president’s request to address Congress on his chosen day — the first time in history that has happened.
Instead of speaking during prime time Wednesday night, Obama will be the preshow to the preshow of the NFL’s season opener — an embarrassing downgrade for a president.
Boehner and Obama haven’t spoken since the scheduling snafu, an aide to the speaker said Wednesday.
One Democrat suggested Obama might try to break the ice with a joke.
If nothing else, it could be worth tuning in simply to watch Obama’s and Boehner’s body language when they meet at the rostrum just before the president’s speech.
- President Barack Obama