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Passing The American Jobs Act: The Path From Here

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What can President Barack Obama do, exactly, to ensure the passage of the American Jobs Act? Thus far, he's taken his case to the public in a televised appearance before a joint session of Congress, and out on what looks to the trained eye to be the 2012 "campaign trail." He's got an actual plan to brandish, that incorporates ideas that are, in the administration's opinion, non-controversial and worthy of bipartisan support. He's both "gone big" on his sell and "gotten tough" with his tone. And his pitch comes with a "Pass this jobs bill" refrain that supporters are already embracing, with chants at Obama's events and, the White House hopes, with calls and faxes to their Congressional representatives.

The game has definitely changed. After many months of essentially succumbing to being a passive participant in the GOP's debt ceiling negotiations, the Obama administration has obviously decided that this "pivot to jobs" was going to occur with fervor and urgency. Of course, it's hard to decouple this new sense of urgency over jobs from another looming challenge for the Obama administration -- the 2012 election itself. It gets harder still when you consider the fact that the DNC, in touting the bill, has specifically targeted the battleground states for their ad push behind the bill. There are states with more dire unemployment problems that will neither receive a DNC ad or an Obama appearance.

And that may be one of the reasons this bill could run into delays and obstruction, now that it's newly loosed into the wilds. Let's face it, the GOP has gotten pretty good at throwing delays and roadblocks at Obama's legislative initiatives. What's more, now that it's become clear to Republicans that there are so few consequences to their intransigence, they don't much care anymore about being thought of as the party of intransigence. The money quote following the release of the American Jobs Act came from an anonymous House Republican aide, who told Politico, "Obama is on the ropes; why do we appear ready to hand him a win?" Keep in mind that we're talking about a bill that seeks to "hand a win" to the jobless.

So, what can be done to ensure the bill's passage? Well, there exists an undercurrent critique of the GOP that pulsates through the community of Obama supporters: since economic recovery of any stripe only aids in Obama's re-election hopes, the GOP has a vested interest in keeping recovery depressed. This argument can be convincingly made -- and quotes like the above can certainly help. And so, the White House and their allies could potentially mount a scorched earth campaign on that premise and try to pull support away from their Congressional opposition. One problem here is that the public already sees Congressional Republicans in an unfavorable light. But the larger issue is that absent some blockbuster disclosure where someone leaks a memo or gets John Boehner on tape saying that he wants to destroy America for political gain, the argument can quickly descend into a fen of partisan hackery, as Democratic operatives strive to prove something that isn't materially manifested in the real world.

Instead, we have the president out on the stump, promoting the bill in campaign-style public appearances and pressuring Republicans on the grounds that they should like the policies enshrined in the bill and the net benefit to their home districts. In and of themselves, these orations make for decent "optics," but political scientists will tell you that public speeches don't move the needle in terms of growing and garnering widespread policy support, at least not directly. For a long dialectic on this, I recommend John Sides' recent post, "What Can Presidential Speeches Do? A Dialogue," as it's tremendously edifying about the real power of -- and the real point of using -- the "bully pulpit." For the time being, I'll cut to Sides' bottom line:

Q: Fair enough. So what's the ultimate takeaway?

A: First, the president's ideas have at least some support already. If they didn't, he probably wouldn't have given the speech. Second, as the political scientist Jonathan Bernstein notes, the speech thus serves not so much to persuade lots of recalcitrant voters or members of Congress, but more to signal the President's intention to push for these policies and, equally if not more important, to bargain about these policies. In other words, the speech, whatever its tone, was not laying proposals that are set in stone. Expect the speech simply to spawn additional debate and negotiation.

If the end result is a bill on the president's desk, we'll have an excellent example of how presidential leadership really works. It's not about magic words or eloquent moments. As Edwards said, it's about facilitating change.

Emphasis mine. Sides put that up on September 9. With an eye to the idea that presidential oratory "signal[s] the President's intention to push for these policies and ... bargain about these policies," let's catch up with some of the essential reporting from today. First, here's Carrie Budoff Brown and Jake Sherman in Politico:

President Barack Obama needs House Speaker John Boehner's help to muscle a jobs bill through Congress, but he's betting that Boehner needs the win just as badly.

The White House strategy rests on the risky assumption that Obama can sell Boehner on a new political reality: With voters desperate for jobs, neither leader can afford to do nothing.

It's a twist on the conventional wisdom that Republicans can ignore a weakened Obama. His approval ratings are low, but Congress is worse off, senior administration officials said Tuesday. House Republicans hold a 48-seat majority, but more than 60 of them will run in districts that Obama won in 2008 -- and will contest heavily next year, the officials said. And while the tea party may loathe Obama's plan, the coveted independent vote does not, they added.

And here's our own Sam Stein, on these pages:

The Obama White House is revising its initial unwillingness to negotiate on the president's job creation plan, saying now that if individual components of the bill came to the president's desk -- as opposed to the bill in its entirety -- he would sign them into law.

The new approach opens up the administration to charges that it no longer views the American Jobs Act as a take-it-or-leave-it bill. But in a briefing with reporters Tuesday, senior administration officials insisted President Obama wasn't backing off his position that he wants the entire bill passed through Congress.

If lawmakers sent Obama legislation that would, say, send money to the states to rehire teachers, he would sign it and push for Congress to pass the remainder of his suggested reforms. As one of those senior administration officials put it, it would be politically suicidal to veto a bill that creates 1 million jobs just because it doesn't create 2 million jobs.

The less-than-absolutist stance contrasts with remarks made in television appearances earlier Tuesday morning by Obama adviser David Axelrod, who insisted that the president wasn't interested in negotiations "to break up the package."

"It's not an a la carte menu," Axelrod said.

In short, what we see here is precisely the "bargain now and push later" concept that Sides describes as the ultimate end of the constant speechifying -- which he says, when done effectively, can create an environment in which change can be facilitated.

Right off the bat, if you've been paying attention to the politics of the past three years, you are probably thinking, "Obama is just walking into the same old 'Scorpion and the Frog' trap." And, acknowledging the fact that the White House has switched positions on their all-or-nothing stance on the bill's passage, one might even say, "Gah, Obama caved again."

But this may be the only move that can be made -- create an environment in which John Boehner recognizes that passing the bill is in his best interests as well. The political science says that Obama is maxing out on what can be done to create such an environment. And indicating a willingness to pass parts of the bill now demonstrates that the administration is thinking practically and tactically. It's practical in the sense that they've established that the unemployment problem is urgent, regardless of anyone's 2012 ambitions, and that the Jobs Act is the playbook from which the White House has to keep running plays. And it's tactical in the sense that if he can earn some comity from the oppositional forces in Congress, it becomes easier for the House GOP to see each part of the bill as a matter that can be debated, tweaked, and passed, and less like something that "hands Obama a win." (On the oppositional side, the administration can make the argument that just as it's "politically suicidal to veto a bill that creates 1 million jobs just because it doesn't create 2 million jobs," it could be costly, ultimately, to stop short of creating those 2 million jobs because of partisan obstruction.)

This seems to be the plan that's in motion to get all or at least a significant part of the American Jobs Act over the goal line. Is there anything else Obama can do? Well, to my mind, he could do something that would cause a lot of heads to explode -- he could make a public statement on ownership and absolution. By which I mean, Obama could go out and insist, "If we enact this plan, and it works, give Congress the credit. If we enact this plan and it fails, assign me the blame." It would, frankly, be an almost unheard of move -- but if Obama is serious about righting our economic ship, doing so in a way that's disambiguated from the 2012 horse race, and ultimately, doing something that clearly transcends partisanship (an oft-stated goal of his 2008 campaign), it's the sort of appeal he ought to try to make.

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