Washington, DC -- President Obama's jobs speech struck me as more remarkable for its message framing than for its contents. The president offered a centrist, roughly half-trillion-dollar combination of taxes and spending to revitalize the economy. The package is probably half as big as it ought to have been, given the economy. But Obama faces enormous resistance from the Republicans in Congress to even this step, so a larger proposal would have seemed less serious, I suspect.
Obama framed his proposal with two even more critical bits of rhetorical craft. First, he clearly defined the difference in ideas between his approach and that of the Tea Party. He rejected an America in which everyone would be left to fend for themselves, and he made it clear that we are a nation of communities, not isolated individuals. He called for America to win a race to the top, not settle for a race to the bottom. He made government action and regulation into synonyms for keeping Americans safe, and presented his jobs bill as a stand-in for this entire debate.
The contrast with the Republican debate the night earlier couldn't have been clearer. Rick Perry's call to eviscerate Social Security as a "Ponzi scheme" (and the willingness of the other Republican candidates to eliminate parts of the social safety net) might not have sounded that different to Washington insiders than Obama's willingness to consider reforming those programs. But to most of us, "Ponzi schemes" and "safety nets" are very different. One is a con. The other is a good thing that could perhaps be made even better.
Second, he called on Congress to pass his package, as written, "right away." He committed himself to campaign for it "right away", opening by going directly to the American people. In effect, he set up a mini-election campaign, with a deadline, and justified this forcing device by saying that the American people "who hired us" can't afford to wait for the November 2012 election. That is not how Obama has handled any other major legislation during his term -- this time he's not waiting for Congress or letting them come up with the details. He's calling for action on his terms and his timetable.
Equally important, he's given himself a campaign context and timetable within which he can focus, something he has had consistent difficulty doing from the White House. He doesn't have to ask himself and his advisers every day, "What's this week about?" He's defined his agenda advance. He has committed to taking his case to the American people, not with rhetorical overkill, but with a schedule: action in place of words. So it won't be news why he is going on the road. The president can bring the media back to what he is advocating. I almost wondered whether this was an intentional decision by the White House not to give themselves -- or Congress -- an escape hatch from focusing on jobs. It allows Obama to campaign while being presidential.
And it puts the onus for likely congressional inaction not on the White House but on the Republican leadership. The Democrats in Congress don't need to herd their own cats -- they have a package to rally behind. But since these are revenue bills, the House must act first and, in the House, the Republicans control the floor.