WASHINGTON -- In the wake of Friday's dismal employment report, which reported no net change in the number of U.S. jobs, Top officials in the Democratic Party are raising the stakes of President Barack Obama's upcoming speech on jobs.
An address before a joint session of Congress remains high-stakes drama, the argument goes. But if the administration is to turn the tide of a stalled-out-economy -- and rescue its floundering political prospects in the process -- something far more sustained is desperately needed.
"I think the zero jobs number says that this is a new economy, a new country, and he has to address that," said Stan Greenberg, a prominent Democratic pollster who has advised top leaders, both foreign and domestic, during the heights of economic crisis. "I think the more the president is focused on the long term, the more the voters will pay attention. Because I don't think there is a lot to be done in the congressional context. He has to go to a bigger stage. He is going to have to move to beyond a strictly congressional agenda."
Greenberg says the toughest lift for a politician is to convince voters who are struggling that policies recently instituted are making their lives better. Not only do they not believe it, he argues, they don't even want to hear it.
And so, the Obama administration, which has largely abandoned the debate over government spending's contribution to recovery, is left with a fundamentally different task: selling a vision of a future economy to which voters can attach hopes. Elections, as the White House often says, are a choice, not a referendum.
A choice, however, requires competing visions. And so while the president is expected to lay out specific job-creation suggestions this coming Thursday, White House aides are now hinting that the speech will be only a starting point for a more comprehensive, narrative-building effort.
A Fox News report on Friday said the president would not be unveiling the full breadth of his job creation recommendations during Thursday's address. A White House official disputed the story. But there was no pushback on another part of the story: that the administration was also considering a fall campaign that would see Obama travel the country, highlighting individual economic proposals at symbolic spots.
"There's no question the president will want to keep returning to jobs," one top aide told Fox News. "I don't want to downplay the speech [next week] -- it's going to be substantial. But the idea that this is the be-all and end-all is wrong."
If the quote gives off the profound scent of déjà vu, that's because the White House has pledged to turn the conversation to jobs many times before, only to be distracted or pulled into a competing crisis.
During the lows of the Gulf oil spill or the government shut down debate, the administration insisted that the president's attention remained consistently on jobs. But even supporters now admit that such statements without actual follow-through no longer suffices.
"He needs to actually put action and substance behind the words 'I wake up every morning thinking about jobs,' " said one prominent Democratic ally. "He needs to have a sustained series of battles over the priorities he lays out. ... He can give a speech, but it has to be more than 'Congress needs to pass this today, do this or that,' but more effectively creating a contrast.
"He can't just be saying I wake up every day thinking about getting people back to work," the source continued. "He actually has to be seen doing that on a consistent basis."
Projecting an image is one part of a broader task facing the administration. The White House must also Find the right brew of policy proposals that not only spur job growth, but also attract popular support. So far, the White House has been coy about what the president will discuss on Thursday night, hinting only at new, "innovative" infrastructure projects, a mix of common-sense tax breaks, widely-supported legislation and proposals tailored for struggling sectors.
The cabinet of ideas contains more than those. But the more crucial element for the administration, party insiders argue, is to extend the proposals beyond the art of the politically possible.
Congressional Republicans seem certain to oppose the president no matter what his recommendations may be. If Obama is to build the case for a long-term economic vision, it can't simply be limited to filibuster-proof elements.
"I don't know if he should go into campaign mode per se on Thursday, but he needs to do Harry Truman," said former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell. "He needs to say this is a do-nothing congress, folks. Despite saying they want to prioritize jobs, they have offered no ideas except cutting taxes, and we know that doesn’t work. They are giving you the same old BS. ... They are trapped by their own ideology."
"I actually think [Obama] is a no-lose proposition," Rendell added. "He puts in a nice package and if the Republicans realize it is good for the country and there is a downside to balking and they pass it: A. he looks like a leader and B. it might actually have some affect before November. And if they turn it down, then they look like an utterly obstructionist congress. ... If they turn down an extension of the payroll tax credit or infrastructure spending they are in desperate trouble."
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