Michael Tomasky: Is Barack Obama Too Weak to Win in November?

The president has delayed attacking the do-nothing Congress for too long. Will he now finally draw blood?

Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP Photo

Remember when the big idea in Obamaland was to run against the do-nothing Congress? This was the thought late last year and early this one, when, working in concert with Chuck Schumer and other Senate Democrats, the White House was going to nail the Republicans to the wall one piece of jobs legislation at a time. Then something happened that distracted the White House’s attention, I don’t know what: The end of roll call votes? The Super Bowl? The start of a new season of American Idol? Whatever the reason, the do-nothing Congress disappeared. Well, now that we’ve had one lousy jobs report, suddenly it is reappearing. But the question of why it ever went away is a good one and reminds us again that the Obama administration and campaign too often flit from one narrative to the next in a way that’s far too reactive to events—and that he refuses to land the punch that would really draw blood.

Obama gave a speech to Congress last September outlining a new jobs plan. Everyone knew of course that the Republicans would enact little to none of it, but the idea was to get Republicans on the record voting against various job-creation proposals, each financed by a small surtax on all dollars earned above $250,000 a year, and then use that against the Republicans. The votes were taken, and while the Republicans were smart enough to realize that they’d better support extending the cut in the employee’s portion of the payroll tax, they did vote against everything else (infrastructure, rehiring public employees, and more), as the Democrats figured they would. But what happened next? Obama seems to have forgotten about it completely.

It wasn’t, in fact, American Idol’s new season. It was that the jobs numbers started looking up. The economy added 243,000 jobs in January and 227,000 in February. Also, Mitt Romney was barely beating Rick Santorum in states where he should have eaten him for lunch. And finally, the story of Congress voting Obama down was old news and not inherently interesting. And so the Obama team moved on to other matters, and once it became clear six weeks ago that Romney would win the nomination, it started aiming its fire more at him than at the Congress.

That was understandable to some extent. But the unemployment rate is still high and always was. The rationale for congressional action on jobs never disappeared. The basic philosophical dispute continues to exist. And most obviously of all, the mendacity of GOP strategy—their obvious desire to harm the economy as long as Obama remains the president—never went away. Given all that, the way the White House completely dropped the obstructionism charge was baffling.

Baffling also given this: As I’ve written many times, Obama’s strongest economic case against Romney doesn’t have to do with Bain Capital or the commonwealth of Massachusetts. It isn’t about the past, but about the future—and explaining the dozen plagues that would be unleashed on America if Romney and a Republican Congress began working together. That means making Congress a partner in villainy, and that starts with statements like, “Republicans in Congress don’t want to put police officers back to work, but they can’t wait to cut millionaires’ taxes even more ... ”

I always felt that Obama should have kept ladling out portions of congressional attacks, just to keep the narrative thread going, the better to weave the two strands—attacks on both the House GOP and Romney—into one large and unified case against Republicanism. But the president didn’t do it, and now comes one bad jobs report, and Obama is back to attacking Congress, and he looks as if he’s flailing a little.

And the biggest problem of all is this. When Obama does go after the Congress, he doesn’t do it in the right way: he urges Republicans to pass his jobs bill. But that’s a waste of everybody’s time. He should be telling audiences that the GOP won’t do anything about jobs, and he should be telling people the truth about why: because all the Republicans are doing now is waiting Obama out. A few more months of crapper numbers, Obama should be telling his audiences, and the Republicans figure they’ll be rid of him. So they’re not going to do anything for the economy, and their motivation is completely political. They’ll deny it, but let them. He should be putting that issue on the table. And it is the issue. Legislation on jobs isn’t stalling because a handful of Republicans are waiting for a better earmark for some project in their district before voting yes. It’s stalled solely over politics.

There is probably still time for this, but Obama needs to be a lot more aggressive about it. Urging Republicans to pass his bill sounds weak and dreamy. Everyone knows that’s just never going to happen, and I doubt very much that even those beloved swing voters think he sounds noble when he says it—they think he sounds weak and dreamy, just as he did during the debt fiasco. Obama and his people better not make that mistake again. The president is pretty clearly not going to have strong economic tailwinds propelling his campaign forward this summer and fall. The least he could do is make sure voters understand who’s slashing the sails and why.