Let’s Get to Work: Obama challenges Congress to pass $447 billion jobs bill

Originally posted September 2, 2011

Combining a slate of moderate policy proposals and a confrontational tone, President Barack Obama called on Congress Thursday night to pass $447 billion in infrastructure spending, tax cuts, unemployment benefits, and state and local government aid to help revive a stalling economy and his freefalling poll numbers.  A far cry from the cowering and whimpering president of the past 18 months, Obama adopted a commanding tone, taking Congress to task for not addressing the plight of the 14 million Americans who remain unemployed.

Obama’s remarks were bound to be a lightning rod, splitting Democrats and Republicans even further apart, because he was using a very rare joint session of Congress to make a campaign speech. Originally scheduled for Wednesday evening at the same time as the Republican presidential debate, the speech was clearly political. Although his remarks would have been more appropriate for a regular stump speech coinciding with Labor Day, the larger setting was necessary to drive a point home to Congress: Get this done!

Despite having to vie for attention with the start of the NFL season, Thursday evening was a far better time to make an address to the nation. It provided the president a final say after a string of speeches about job creation this week, and it allowed him to take back the news cycle from Rick Perry and Mitt Romney.  Compared to Romney’s 59-point plan to stimulate job growth, Obama’s plan is an easy sell to the American public.

Just like the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the measures outlined by Obama are targeted at job creation, heavy on tax breaks and a little light on infrastructure spending:

Tax Cuts:

  • Extension of the employee payroll tax cut (Pricetag: $175 billion)
  • Extension of the employer payroll tax cut ($65 billion)

Unemployment benefits:

  • Extension of unemployment benefits ($49 billion)
  • Tax credit to employers for hiring long-term unemployed ($8 billion)

Infrastructure and local aid:

  • $50 billion for local infrastructure projects
  • $35 billion to retain and rehire teachers and first responders
  • $30 billion to modernize public schools
  • $10 billion for an infrastructure bank

Will this be enough to jumpstart the economy? Probably not. Is it enough to paint the Republicans as obstructionists if nothing gets done? If Obama handles the politics correctly – which he probably will not – it should. The plan would add 2 percentage points to GDP growth next year, 1.9 million jobs, and cut the unemployment rate by a percentage point, according to analysis conducted by Moody’s. This is extremely optimistic. In reality, the allotted amounts will not be enough to offset the decreases in private spending to have a sizeable impact on the economy.

To make sure the additional spending does not add to the deficit, Obama encouraged the congressional “supercommittee’ to find additional cuts/revenue increases to offset the spending, complicating the committee’s already difficult task of reducing the federal deficit by $1.5 trillion during the next decade.

There is nothing in the bill that either side should oppose. Every policy has received bipartisan support at some point. Nonetheless, the overall bill is mostly dead on arrival. Congress will pass bits and pieces of it (probably the payroll tax extension and a few other Republican ideas) but not enough to get the country working again. This doesn’t mean Obama’s jobs push is in vein. Each proposal is politically popular and should knock Republicans on the defensive. Except by introducing a second round of stimulus spending, Obama is admitting ARRA was not as successful as it could have been, and he is opening himself up to a new line of attacks; there is always an equal and opposite reaction in politics.

Pundits have made a lot out of the politics of the speech, but – as Obama mentioned – Americans don’t care about politics. They care about jobs. They care about their job. They care about whether they can afford to send their children to college. “The people who sent us here — the people who hired us to work for them — they don’t have the luxury of waiting 14 months,” Obama said. “Some of them are living week to week, paycheck to paycheck, even day to day. They need help, and they need it now.”

For the first time in a long, long time, Obama appeared to be a confident and competent president Thursday night. Let’s hope that image lasts.

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