Obama to Congress: Do Your Job and Extend Unemployment Benefits

It's been more than a week since emergency benefits for the unemployed expired, and Obama wants Congress to get its act together and extend them.

Larry Downing/Reuters

From the introductory speaker—an unemployed woman named Katherine—to the constant focus on the livelihoods of struggling Americans, it’s clear President Obama wanted to send one message with his brief address on emergency unemployment insurance: The long-term unemployed aren’t lazy.

He even says as much, outright: “The long-term unemployed are not lazy. They’re not lacking in motivation. They’re coping with the aftermath of the worst economic crisis in generations. In some cases, they may have a skills mismatch, right? They may have been doing a certain job for 20 years. Suddenly they lose that job.”

This is meant as a direct rebuke to Republicans, who argue that the unemployed are hurt by receiving benefits, and that the economy would be better off if we allowed them to expire. But—Obama’s defense of his economic record aside—it can also be read as an indictment of Washington’s lackluster response to the recession. If Congress and the administration had worked harder to create a tighter labor market, then we wouldn’t need to extend emergency unemployment insurance—there would be jobs for the people who want them. As it stands, we’ve dismissed full employment as a goal, which makes this—and other safety net measures—an absolute necessity.

As for the rest of his argument? It should be familiar to anyone following the issue. As he notes, these benefits are key to countless families who would otherwise fall into destitution. They allow job seekers to buy food, pay their bills, and continue the search for work in an economy that doesn’t have enough to go around.

What’s more, there’s clear precedent for extending benefits; as he notes, “both parties have repeatedly put partisanship and ideology aside to offer some security for job-seekers with no strings attached,” have done so when the unemployment rate was “significantly lower” than it is today. There’s also the economic benefits: “If this doesn’t get fixed,” he says “it will hurt about 14 million Americans over the course of this year – 5 million workers along with 9 million of their family members, their spouses, their kids.”

Prospects for extending emergency unemployment insurance are better than they looked a few weeks ago. In the Senate, a three month extension to reinstate benefits overcame a filibuster, as six Republicans—Dean Heller of Nevada, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Susan Collins of Maine, Dan Coats of Indiana, and Rob Portman of Ohio—joined with 54 Democrats to vote for cloture. Speaker John Boehner says this measure is likely to go “nowhere,” but as Jonathan Chait points out, Democrats have at least one strategy for getting the bill through the House: Grafting it to the farm bill, and demanding an extension in return for new spending on farmers.

Which is to say that if Republicans can compromise and accept mild conditions for lavish agricultural subsidies, then Washington might move to do the least possible for America’s long-term unemployed.