A few quick thoughts about President Obama’s address to Congress about jobs last night:
1) I have some substantive and rhetorical concerns -- the suggested need to cut Medicare benefits for future retirees, for example, and the stipulation that job-creation not come at the expense of increasing the short-term deficit. And, of course, it’s impossible to fully assess either the substance or the rhetoric until we know what’s in the President’s “more ambitious deficit plan” to come.
2) That said, the speech was a welcome step in the right direction. As Krugman notes, it was bolder than expected and the plan, if enacted, “would probably make a significant dent in unemployment.” It’s still smaller and more focused on tax cuts than I’d like, and I wish the President done more to articulate a progressive Keynesian view of how the economy works and what it needs.
3) Big picture, though, there was a lot about the speech to be happy about. The mere fact of it, first of all: An address to Congress about the jobs crisis was long overdue. Speaking of which: Right there in the first paragraph, the President made clear that it is a crisis: “Tonight we meet at an urgent time for our country. We continue to face an economic crisis that has left millions of our neighbors jobless, and a political crisis that’s made things worse.” At various times over the past few years, he’s said things like “we are past the crisis point in the economy,” which were perhaps defensible if you defined “crisis” as “dangerous times for banks” rather than “massive, sustained unemployment.” We’re still in a crisis, and I’m glad to see it described as such.
4) That said, the President has previously given speeches that suggest he’s going to engage more aggressively on jobs, with little follow-up. If this is a one-off speech, there isn’t much point to it. If it’s the beginning of a sustained period of intense focus on jobs and economic growth, that’s better. If you want people -- the public, the media, members of Congress, etc -- to focus on job creation, you talk all day every day about job creation, not deficits. You appoint bipartisan jobs commissions, not bipartisan deficit commissions. And so on. There needs to be more like this -- much more -- and not just from the President. The administration as a whole, Democratic members of Congress, too.
5) Will it work? Depends on what work means.
6) If work means “pursued Congress to pass legislation that will provide significant economic stimulus and create jobs” … No, probably not. But trying is more likely to succeed than not trying. And success is more likely if people who want it to happen fight like hell for it rather than feeding into the assumption that it can’t pass. Speaking of which: It’s probably useful to remember that Michelle Bachmann and Jim DeMint aren’t the people blocking urgent job creation: Olympia Snowe and Scott Brown and the couple dozen least conservative members of Congress are. Congressional passage of legislation is not determined by what the most extreme members of the opposition will accept, but by what the most moderate members of the opposition do. What might happen if President Obama and the Democratic leadership decided to just ignore Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan and focus all of their efforts (positive and negative) on the Snowes and Browns of the Republican party? Would that be more likely to succeed? The better question might be: How could it be less likely?
7) If work means “enhance the President’s political standing, and that of the Democratic party” … That, too, is a heavy lift. By a huge margin, the most important factor in the President’s political standing is going to be the condition of the economy. If he can enact job-creating legislation, that’ll help him politically. If not, he’s in trouble. (This, of course, creates unfortunate incentives for Republicans.)
8) That said, if the economy is terrible, it’s probably better to be seen as having been thwarted by the opposing party in your attempts to fix it than it is for people to think you got what you wanted and it didn’t work. This is one of the many problems with the administration’s decision to go small with the 2009 stimulus package: Had they asked for the roughly $1.3 trillion their economists thought they needed and gotten it (or more, and settled for $1.3 trillion) it likely would have worked better than the much smaller package they got. (Though, as we now know, it still would not have been sufficient.) And had they not gotten it -- had $800 billion really been the most Congress would pass under any circumstances -- they wouldn’t have been as vulnerable to the perception that they got the massive stimulus they wanted and it didn’t work. They’d have been better positioned to seek more later, and to say “If you’d given us what we said we needed, things would have been better.”
9) Again, though, that’s playing around at the margins: By far the best political outcome is to improve the economy. But if you can’t do that, it’s better to have a plausible story about how you tried and the Republicans stopped you. “We would have tried to do more, but we didn’t bother, ‘cause we knew Republicans wouldn’t go along with it” isn’t as good as showing people a lengthy, acrimonious fight in which you actually try to do more and Republicans block it. (To those who worry that such an approach would result in appearing weak: You look weak anyway.)
10) If work means “reverse the decades-long skepticism among both elites and the public at large about progressive approaches to the economy and accomplish fundamental reform that addresses the massive and growing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a tiny elite that results from a system rigged in their favor” … No. Of course not. That will require years of sustained effort by many people. But it’s a broad goal progressives should keep in mind and try not to undermine by doing things like stipulating to the importance of cutting taxes and regulations for “job creators” who already enjoy historically low taxes. We have a tough enough climb without shooting ourselves in the foot.
11) So if it’s unlikely to result in the passage of legislation that improves the economy, or to significantly enhance the President’s political standing in the absence of such improvement, or to shift the playing field on which economic debates occur, why do it? Because it’s the only option, other than going along with an approach that lines the pockets of a tiny portion of the country and screws everyone else.