Friday, September 9, 2011

Showing us what he’s got

Where is the man known as Barack Obama and what have they done with him? Because the fiery orator, the thinker with action attached who addressed a joint session of Congress, and the nation, on Thursday night is not him. The man who brought his A game of righteous outrage is nothing like the Barack Obama we’ve come to expect over the last nearly-three years. You know the one: The chin-pulling Obama, the dogged gradualist whose enervating deliberation has been interpreted as indecision or reluctance, was nowhere around last night. Find out what his secret undisclosed location is — and keep him there for good.

In an address laser-focused on jobs and what it takes to get the country working again — after a scarily dismal August jobs report that found no new jobs added to the economy that month — President Obama formally introduced the American Jobs Act, a $447 billion measure intended to “provide a jolt to the economy that has stalled.”

It might as well be called the Omnibus Recovery Act: It would cut payroll taxes in half for 160 million workers next year; overhaul unemployment insurance; establish a $10 billion National Infrastructure Bank; direct $50 billion for immediate investment in highways, transit, rail and aviation; cut payroll taxes in half for small-business employers; dedicate $30 billion to modernize schools; and assist homeowners with mortgage modifications through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

With the bill’s formal introduction in as formal a setting as Congress has, the president indicated a grasp of the scale of the problem. With a bite and vigor of language that managed the delicate mission of pointing fingers without pointing them, the president also showed a deft sense of political timing (necessary for the fourteen long months of combat between now and Election Day 2012).

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Early on in the speech, Obama distilled what’s at stake not just for him and the Democrats but also the Republicans and their bid for continued gridlock on solving the country’s economic woes.

“Members of Congress, it is time for us to meet our responsibilities,” the president said.

“The question is whether, in the face of an ongoing national crisis, we can stop the political circus and actually do something to help the economy. ...”

“The purpose of the American Jobs Act is simple: to put more people back to work and more money in the pockets of those who are working. It will create more jobs for construction workers, more jobs for teachers, more jobs for veterans, and more jobs for the long-term unemployed. It will provide a tax break for companies who hire new workers, and it will cut payroll taxes in half for every working American and every small business. It will provide a jolt to an economy that has stalled, and give companies confidence that if they invest and hire, there will be customers for their products and services. You should pass this jobs plan right away.”

Obama used the phrase “pass the bill right away,” or variations of that, at least 17 times in a speech that finely and clearly distilled what’s at stake not just now but in the upcoming presidential campaign circus: the health of the national economy and the prospect for an already dismal economic status to finally circle the drain toward true depression.

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President Obama came as close as he’s ever come to naming names, calling out certain Republican leaders from certain beleaguered districts. “There’s a bridge that needs repair between Ohio and Kentucky that’s on one of the busiest trucking routes in North America,” Obama said, taking dead aim at (two for one!) the home states of House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

He spoke of a stalled public transit project in Houston, a shot at Texas Gov. Rick Perry. And referencing his Republican automatic adversaries in general, the president championed the bill’s tax breaks for small businesses: “For everyone who speaks so passionately about making life easier for job creators, this plan’s for you.”

There was no need to call out people by name. With broadsides like that, with specific states put on the spot … those people know who they are. And we know who they are. And they know we know who they are.

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And to go by the breadth of the Obama bill, “we” means people at every level of the socioeconomic spectrum; the president said the bill’s passage would mean jobs for returning veterans, construction workers, young people, first responders, teachers and, yes, even the long-term unemployed.

Get your ears around this: “Pass this jobs bill,” the president said, “and companies will get a $4,000 tax credit if they hire anyone who has spent more than six months looking for a job.”

The president challenged the notion of a cut-rate America populated with business leaders willing to outsource American jobs for the sake of financial expediency, and political leaders willing to outsource Americans’ hopes for the sake of sticking to a pledge against tax revenues. “We shouldn’t be in a race to the bottom,” the president said. “America should be in a race to the top, and I believe we can win that race.”

And he did it again. Near the end of this speech, as he did last month, President Obama pulled another Howard Beale-style appeal for mass action when he called for “every American who agrees [to] lift your voice, tell the people gathered here tonight that you want action now.”

(I want them wading … knee deep in tweets at your congressman’s office!)

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We got a preview of this fresh rhetorical fire from the president at a Detroit Labor Council rally on Labor Day. Obama gave the crowd just a taste of what was to come on Thursday. When the jobs bill was introduced, he said, “we’re gonna see if we’ve got some straight shooters in Congress. We’re gonna see if congressional Republicans will put country before party. Show us what ya got!”

If this is the Obama who means to be at center stage from now into the 2012 campaign, he got here not a moment too soon. He’s going to need all the fire he can bring. One snapshot of recent opinion is not good. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released on Sept. 1 gave the 44th president just 44 percent in job approval numbers, the lowest of his presidency. Fifty-one percent disapproved.

And on his handling of the economy, it was worse yet. Just 37 percent approve of how Obama handles the helm of the economy; a full 59 percent disapprove.

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It’s a rare orator who can speak to two audiences at once: the one directly in front of him and the other, vaster audience in the angry, broke, bone-tired, late-night blue-glow nation beyond.

Setting Thursday’s address in a joint session of Congress was more than smart political optics; it set the scope and tone of the legislation he hopes to advance; it symbolized the gravity of the hour like no other forum could.

But it also owned up to the size of the president’s real, other audience, the ones he really has to sway: the American people, a restless and deeply unemployed public that, more and more often and quiet as it’s kept, harbors the feeling that the social and political gains of the Obama administration and its undeniable populist symbolism may not be an irreversible validation of the nation’s bedrock principles, but an ambitious, even noble, but failed national experiment that has run its course.

Image credits: Obama, Biden and Boehner: Pete Souza/The White House; Obama and Boehner: Chuck Kennedy/The White House.

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