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08.31.11

Wimp in the White House

With President Obama capitulating to John Boehner on when he'd be permitted to deliver his jobs speech to Congress, Michael Tomasky wonders whether the president will ever fight for policies he believes in.

Boy, do I get depressed when I read things like this, from White House press spokesman Jay Carney the other day: “The president hopes that members of Congress of both parties, having returned from their August recess, will come back imbued with the spirit of bipartisan compromise, and imbued with the urgency required to address the needs of our economy and the needs of our workforce.”

And this: “There will be plenty of reasons for people on both sides of the aisle to like it” (with “it” referring to the president’s soon-to-be-unveiled jobs plan). That’s White House “Principal Deputy Press Secretary” Joshua Earnest (Earnest! Did Dickens name this guy?). I just shudder to think that the president is going to head into this fall’s battle over the economy while sticking to these soupy clichés and the worldview behind them. How much evidence do they need to see that Republicans will return to Washington imbued with the spirit of partisan hostility? When will Obama ever utter fighting words?

I hope—alas, against hope—that the White House is keeping a scorecard of this year so far. That scorecard reads Republicans 2, Obama 0 (the threatened government shutdown and the debt deal), covering a period during which the president’s approval ratings have sagged by about 10 points, and this even though he iced Osama bin Laden. What the Republicans are doing is working. It’s pretty nearly working perfectly. It doesn’t matter that the GOP’s disapproval numbers are high. People vote for individual candidates, not parties, and Obama is now in trouble in some big states in head-to-head matchups with Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. Obviously the people in the White House know all this. They just don’t seem to want to do anything about it.

The capitulation on next week's jobs speech showed, again, a White House that just refuses to understand the kind of opposition it's dealing with. It was foolish of the White House to schedule the event opposite the GOP debate to begin with (greatly complicating life for MSNBC, the debate's sponsor and the one friendly cable channel). However exactly the timeline unfolded, the fracas is emblematic of the White House's lack of political savvy. One hopes at least that Obama reflects on the fact that Boehner is (evidently) the first speaker in history to refuse a president's requested date and starts to come to terms with his reality.

Judging from the leaks so far, the jobs program that’s coming next week will be pretty modest. Continuation of the FICA tax cut for employees. Probably a similar cut for employers. A special tax benefit to employers for hiring veterans, which Obama discussed Tuesday in his speech to the American Legion. And . . .what? I would hope to see an infrastructure bank proposal. The idea bouncing around is for a dividend repatriation tax holiday for American corporations to bring operations back from overseas, and using that money to fund such a bank. There are serious disputes about whether such a tax holiday would generate or cost money, but at least it’s a semi-big idea, and even Tom Donohue of the Chamber of Commerce says he’s for a version of it.

Our gridlock isn’t an act of God. It’s an act of man. Or men. Particular men. They even have names. They are McConnell, Boehner, and Cantor.

Liberals want Obama to go bigger—for example, a $227 billion Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) proposal for a public-works jobs program financed by a surtax on households above $1 million in income. Liberal advocates want Obama to announce big and clear ideas that connect with people, let the Republicans block them, and then go out and blame them so the public sees who’s blocking job creation and why. I’m sure Obama would reason that he’s not going to put forward something that he knows won’t pass, and he’d rather get incremental wins that actually produce some jobs out in the real world that enable him to score political points.

Fair enough—except that there’s no reason to think he’s going to get even incremental wins. The Republicans are going to deride whatever he does as Son of Stimulus, the right-wing propaganda apparatus will put a fatwa on the head of any wavering House member or senator, and no plan with “Obama” in its name is going to clear the Senate, let alone the House, and that will be that. We know this.

This is why it’s so chillingly disheartening to read quotes like Carney’s and Earnest’s. The plan can be bold. The plan can be modest. The point is that he has to fight like hell for it. But he won’t. He is the anti-Broder on this front. Remember how the late David Broder wrote all those columns lamenting partisan gridlock, carefully blaming both sides, pointedly ignoring the mountains of evidence that it was chiefly Republicans driving the divide? Well, Obama, rather than blaming both sides, blames neither. He speaks of ending partisan gridlock in a disembodied and remote way, and he talks about it as if it’s an act of God that has descended on the capital, like Irene did—and one that can be overcome if we all just put our shoulders to the wheel.

But the truth is that our gridlock is an act of man—or men. Particular men. They even have names. They are McConnell, Boehner, and Cantor. God forbid the president criticize them. It’s two more syllables than “Martin, Barton, and Fish,” the trio of Republican obstructionists FDR famously called out (read this for a little background on how Obama could be behaving differently), but the president’s an articulate fellow; he could handle it.

Remember that scorecard. Please, Mr. President—you’re the guy who ran on change. Well—change.