Obama on Jobs: Leading From Out Front

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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.

Obama has always been able to convey urgency and intensity when he wants to. On Thursday he repeated the words "right now" eight times in exhorting Congress to pass his plan. He substituted "it's an outrage" for "this is inexcusable" when he talked about letting construction workers sit idle while roads, bridges, schools, airports and railroads need work and China surges ahead. He told lawmakers to "stop the political circus and actually do something to help the economy."

It's a fact, however, that Obama himself kicked off the politicking with an in-your-face plan to deliver his jobs speech to a joint session the same night as a Republican debate. Boehner rejected the formal request -- a first in history, apparently -- and suggested Thursday. Round one to Boehner. Rounds two and three to him, too. Obama not only looked weak, he had to move his speech out of primetime to avoid conflicting with the NFL season opener. Completing the image of a feeble president and a disrespectful opposition party, some Republicans said they'd boycott the speech.

But then a different mood took hold, perhaps driven by fear of voter disgust. Republican leaders urged their boycotting members to attend. Some Democrats and Republicans said they'd sit next to each other. There was a sudden outbreak of talk about common ground. And shortly before Obama left for the Capitol on Thursday night, the Senate voted 89-9 to send a patent reform bill to his desk. Though some are skeptical, backers say the updated, speedier system will spark inventions and create jobs.

Whether the cooperative atmosphere will last, whether Obama's package or even parts of it will pass, who knows. He'll be fighting both parties over a deficit plan he says will cut Medicare and raise taxes on the wealthy. He may never persuade the GOP to agree to $135 billion to modernize schools, roads, rails and airports, prevent layoffs of teachers and first responders, set up an infrastructure bank and pay construction workers to rehab vacant and foreclosed buildings.

Many economists say government spending is needed to lift the economy, and Republicans have agreed in the past. Now they say it's wrong and hold up the $800 billion stimulus package passed in 2009 as an example of utter failure. It doesn't matter to them that the evidence, including statistics from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, shows otherwise. As Rick Perry said of Obama in the GOP debate this week, "he has proven for once and for all that government spending will not create one job. Keynesian policy and Keynesian theory is now done. We'll never have to have that experiment on America again."

Is Perry a prophet, or full of bluster? The answer hinges to a large extent on Obama -- on how well he makes his case for this package and, ultimately, on whether he is re-elected. He says he intends to pitch his jobs plan and priorities in "every corner of this country." Follow-up has not been his strong suit, but maybe that's another change the president plans to make.

Image credit: REUTERS/Larry Downing

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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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