The economy may be depressing as hell, but the President Obama who interrupted our prime-time television tonight wasn't in a somber mood. In his highly anticipated jobs speech before a rare joint session of Congress, Obama exhibited the animation and urgency he literally told Congress to pass his jobs plan "right away" eight separate times of a candidate at a campaign rally. At times, he was shouting, practically screaming. And, in fact, this speech did occasionally veer into campaign-speech territory:
"What we can’t do — what I won’t do — is let this economic crisis be used as an excuse to wipe out the basic protections that Americans have counted on for decades. I reject the idea that we need to ask people to choose between their jobs and their safety. I reject the argument that says for the economy to grow, we have to roll back protections that ban hidden fees by credit card companies, or rules that keep our kids from being exposed to mercury, or laws that prevent the health insurance industry from shortchanging patients. I reject the idea that we have to strip away collective bargaining rights to compete in a global economy. We shouldn’t be in a race to the bottom, where we try to offer the cheapest labor and the worst pollution standards. America should be in a race to the top. And I believe that’s a race we can win."
The 2012 presidential election will likely hinge around a philosophical debate about the role of government in American life, and that passage sounds a lot like Obama's side of the argument.
But the reason we all tuned in tonight was to hear what kind of job-creation proposals Obama has come up with. Obama's plan, which he's dubbed the American Jobs Act, is essentially a second stimulus. With a reported price tag of $450 billion, it contains tax incentives for small businesses that hire people who've been unemployed for six months, a payroll-tax cut for both employers and employees, an extension of unemployment benefits, and spending on infrastructure like roads and schools.
Obama repeatedly stressed that every proposal in his plan has been backed by both Democrats and Republicans. That doesn't mean that many Republicans can't, or won't, find a way to oppose the plan. For most of the speech, they sat on their hands, although there were some predictable exceptions: The GOP side of the chamber stood and applauded when Obama proposed giving tax breaks to businesses that hire military veterans, proposed lowering the corporate tax rate, and proclaimed that Medicare had to be reformed in order to be strengthened in the long run.
A key component to the whole plan is that, unlike the original stimulus which at this point is about as popular as bird flu the American Jobs Act will be fully paid for, so it won’t add to the debt. That should preempt the otherwise inevitable “we can’t afford it” line of resistance from fiscal conservatives. Though Obama didn’t spell out the specifics of how it would be paid for, he asked that the debt-reduction super-committee that is already working on finding $1.5 trillion in savings also find savings to offset the American Jobs Act.
Of course, it’s not as if finding $450 billion in savings that Republicans and Democrats would both be willing to vote for is an easy task. So the success of Obama’s jobs plan depends on more than his ability to get bi-partisan support for his proposals in Congress. It also depends on the ability of Congress to agree on another round of steep cuts. That makes the task doubly difficult, which is why presidents and congresses of the past haven't even bothered to try to pay for things.