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.