OK, we’ve covered the policy of the jobs speech pretty well. What about the politics? Because that’s what the speech really was – a political argument in the face of a struggling economy, an intransigent opposition and an unclear re-election campaign.
I think the consensus is that the President gave a strong speech, deficit mania aside. The President was specific, imploring Congress to “pass this jobs bill.” And he vowed to take the message to every corner of the country and whip up support for it. This is the “bully pulpit” strategy that a lot of progressives have been asking for. James Fallows writes:
It’s an approach familiar from religious speeches and sermons, and tent-revival orations. When done right, the recurrent refrain seems not repetitive and boring but rather cumulatively engaging: the audience knows where the speaker is going, anticipates the connections he is going to make, and sees how the parts fit together. Most listeners will not know about the theory of rhyme schemes or the structure of refrains in poetry. But we all recognize these patterns when we hear them. Recall how, in a more innocent age, Obama used Yes we can as a stylized connective refrain. After the jump is a passage where I thought the refrain worked well as a thematic device (and was delivered well).
On both politics and substance, the President positioned himself in the only tenable way for the next months’ deliberations with the Congress and next year’s election campaign. Instead of asking vaguely for “consensus” or seeming resentfully resigned to the dysfunction of politics, he’s made his case and said clearly and confidently what he is for. That is a big improvement from the passive-defeatist tone and reality of the debt-ceiling era.
What’s more, at the end of the speech the President actually made a series of liberal arguments – about the need to protect the American commons, the need to go beyond rugged individualism. Here’s an excerpt:
Ask yourselves – where would we be right now if the people who sat here before us decided not to build our highways and our bridges; our dams and our airports? What would this country be like if we had chosen not to spend money on public high schools, or research universities, or community colleges? Millions of returning heroes, including my grandfather had the opportunity to go to school because of the GI Bill. Where would we be if they hadn’t had that chance?
How many jobs would it have cost us if past Congresses decided not to support the basic research that led to the Internet and the computer chip? What kind of country would this be if this Chamber had voted down Social Security or Medicare just because it violated some rigid idea about what government could or could not do? How many Americans would have suffered as a result?
No single individual built America on their own. We built it together. We have been, and always will be, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all; a nation with responsibilities to ourselves and with responsibilities to one another. Members of Congress, it is time for us to meet our responsibilities.
That’s a lasting argument, one that has needed to be said for the last three years. It may not pay off right now, but it’s important to explain to the public that there’s a political ideology other than modern conservatism, and it has a set of basic values. At least people may know they exist now.
It has to be added that the refrain of the early part of the speech was all about how every idea he proposed has been supported by members of both parties. Mark Schmitt called this Fighting Bipartisanship. And it did have an interesting effect on the Republican leadership.
A speech cannot move a nation, but a President sets an agenda. He delivered a focal point to which everyone has to react, and by making it a specific piece of legislation, the reaction had to be on the bill itself. And you can see that Republicans were caught a little off-guard. John Boehner said the plans “merited consideration.” Eric Cantor found areas of commonality in the speech, though he did say – to the President – that it shouldn’t be “all or nothing”, stressing the need for bipartisan cooperation! The other responses range from petulant to just grabbing at straws.
First Read considered this to be surprising, and to a small extent, so do I. You have Democrats singing off the same songbook – Kent Conrad quickly endorsed the bill, and Joe Manchin signed on to a different effort to force a jobs Super Committee – with Republicans flailing a bit. And you have Democrats even getting aggressive with the “the GOP wants the country to fail” rhetoric.
However, I think Republicans are going for the divide and conquer approach. They know that people are upset with the obstructionism of the debt limit debate. Republicans were hurt by that, perhaps more than Democrats. They know that jobs is the number one issue in the country and that they are seen as prioritizing less relevant issues. They saw over 400 protests at their town halls during the recess. And at the same time, there really are elements of the President’s bill, like small business tax cuts, the job-training measure for long-term unemployed, and even some of the infrastructure spending, which they would be inclined to support. They aren’t going to go for the state fiscal aid, or the infrastructure bank.
So you may have an inversion here. The Republicans strike the moderate pose, picking and choosing some ideas and stressing the need for bipartisan cooperation. And they pass a scaled-back version of the American Jobs Act. That has less of an impact that the initial idea, and not as many jobs are created. Then, Republicans say that they tried it the President’s way, and it failed. That allows them to look not as obstructionist while maintaining the primary goal of making Obama a one-term President.