Ain't Too Proud to Beg: Obama Goes All Out

The president practically got down on one knee during his speech to Congress Thursday night. Will his new approach work?

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The striking thing about President Obama's speech to Congress on Thursday night wasn't that he called for a jobs plan that included measures he'd pushed before, or that he sucked the attention away from a valuable pregame programming slot in the hour before the first game of the NFL season, a vehicle for working-class Americans to forget the very troubles he wants to alleviate.

It was that Obama practically begged Congress to pass his plan, which includes, among other things, a payroll tax cut, extended unemployment insurance, construction spending, education funds, and trade deals with Panama, Colombia, and South Korea that were initiated by president George W. Bush. (Derek Thompson has a handy guide to seven specifics.)

"You should pass this jobs bill" was his refrain, repeated after every detailed proposal in the first half of his speech.

"Pass this jobs bill, and put our teachers back in the classroom where they belong," he said. "Pass this jobs bill, and companies will get extra tax credits if they hire America's veterans," he repeated. "Pass this jobs bill, and the typical working family will get a fifteen hundred dollar tax cut next year," he repeated again. He said it 11 times.

In the middle of his speech, the president trotted out some of the same arguments we've heard before, demonizing the Republican Party's seemingly blanket opposition to regulations, talking about tax breaks for oil companies, and expressing befuddlement at Warren Buffett's tax rate.

And he copped to a significant facet of this plan of his -- that a lot of it will sound like we've heard it before.

"This approach is basically the one I've been advocating for months," he said. Bingo: Why would a president call a joint session of Congress, make such a big production, and try to convince Republican lawmakers to accept the same concept -- a "balanced approach," he called it again -- they rejected just last month during the debt-limit stalemate?

The reason seemed to be that Obama wanted to finally go out on a longer limb, to throw his full weight behind something -- to phrase his request in such dire and vulnerable terms that, if Congress doesn't work with him on it, they truly do look obstinate. The White House has banked on the same idea for months, if not years, but to no avail. Republicans may have looked obstinate, but they've successfully bucked the president without any repercussion, and polling has shown that people want Obama to be a stronger leader and challenge Republicans more forcefully.

In essence, Thursday's speech signified the same White House strategy, but executed differently. By begging Congress to pass his same ideas on primetime TV, he threw more weight behind that same old approach, making himself undoubtedly vulnerable to crash-and-burn failure if Congress doesn't heed his request, but at the same time increasing the cost for Congress if it doesn't.

Obama finished sternly, warning, rather than begging:

Regardless of the arguments we've had in the past, regardless of the arguments we'll have in the future, this plan is the right thing to do right now. You should pass it. And I intend to take that message to every corner of this country. I also ask every American who agrees to lift your voice and tell the people who are gathered here tonight that you want action now. Tell Washington that doing nothing is not an option. Remind us that if we act as one nation, and one people, we have it within our power to meet this challenge.

It seems foolish to analyze his speech in political terms. As he said himself, the press has obsessed vapidly over what this speech would do to his poll numbers.

"This past week, reporters have been asking 'What will this speech mean for the President? What will it mean for Congress? How will it affect their polls, and the next election?'" he said.

But there are serious political questions surrounding Thursday's speech: Can Obama do anything to alleviate the nation's economic problems, and do we still want him as our president?

Both will depend on how Congress receives his plea.

Image credit: Reuters