Obama on Jobs: Leading From Out Front

With the economy showing new weakness, both Republicans and the president have been jolted into action

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Sometimes a speech is just a speech, but President Obama's speech to Congress wasn't one of those times. The ground seems to be shifting in the capital. Obama is leading in a way that's out front and obvious to everyone, and Republican congressional leaders are not dismissing all of his ideas out of hand. Both sides have been jolted out of their patterns, stung by zero job growth in August, public confidence ebbing rapidly in polls, and pre-speech political theatrics that were depressing and pointless even by Washington standards.

Obama's forceful tone belied a growing impression that he has given up, that he is weakened and enervated and doesn't even want a second term. And what he said was an even more effective counterweight than his tone. He took full advantage of his office to set an agenda, mobilize the public behind it and chide the opposition for its tactics. There will apparently be no more leading from behind or waiting for dithering lawmakers. Obama not only laid out his own $450 billion jobs plan, he said that later this month he will release an "ambitious" and detailed plan to pay for it and reduce long-term debt.

House Speaker John Boehner barely applauded during the speech and tried hard to keep his face empty of expression. But afterward he and Majority Leader Eric Cantor were not 100 percent dismissive of Obama's ideas. Boehner said they "merit consideration." Cantor said he was interested in three areas in particular: passing three pending trade agreements, relief for small businesses and a program that lets people work at companies on a trial basis while they receive unemployment benefits.

Though Obama repeatedly stressed the need for the parties to work together to get things done, he aimed plenty of arrows and warnings at Republicans. It has to warm the hearts of Democratic partisans to hear the president vow that he will not roll back labor, safety and environmental protections and lay out the difference between the two parties this way: "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. Should we keep tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires? Or should we put teachers back to work so our kids can graduate ready for college and good jobs? Right now, we can't afford to do both. ... These are real choices that we've got to make. And I'm pretty sure I know what most Americans would choose. It's not even close."

The most powerful line in the speech was aimed at Republicans who want to run out the clock until November 2012, intent on making Obama a one-term president, even as millions of Americans are living week to week and paycheck to paycheck. "The next election is 14 months away. And 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. It was one of the rare lines that won applause from Democrats and Republicans alike.

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Jill Lawrence is a national correspondent at National Journal. She was previously a columnist at Politics Daily, national political correspondent at USA Today and national political writer at the Associated Press.

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