At the end of December 2011, the unemployment rate seemed stuck near 9 percent and the Obama administration faced increasingly gloomy political prospects. By more than 2 to 1, Americans disapproved of the president’s handling of the economy and polls indicated a tough race against any one of the flawed Republican candidates vying for the nomination. But no one expected the chief executive’s dramatic break with the past in the State of the Union address.
“I know it’s become customary for speeches on these occasions to cover all the big issues facing the country,” the president began. “They’re often described as laundry lists and, yes, we’ve got plenty of dirty laundry that we still have to clean up. But instead of a list of all the good things we know we should do, I want to focus on the one big thing we know we must do. And that is putting America back to work, finding jobs for all those unemployed Americans who want to take care of themselves and contribute to their country but continue to lose ground and lose hope.
“It’s a national tragedy when 14 million people want to work, and the rest of us see important work that needs to be done, but the big corporations that run our economy won’t match the willing people to the necessary tasks. Big companies have benefited greatly from our economic recovery, and they’re right now sitting on mountains of cash. But they apparently prefer to hoard these resources or, even worse, to use them to build new plants in Asia or Latin America, taking millions of American jobs even further away from the people who need them.
“We’ve waited three long years for bankers and CEOs to step up and do their part but when it comes to offering new jobs to their fellow Americans, these pampered plutocrats say ‘we can’t’ or ‘we won’t.’ America deserves a better answer than this smug selfishness. The long wait for a corporate turnaround is now officially over. On the crucial challenge of providing a meaningful job to every single American who wants one, we say tonight, ‘we can’ and ‘we will.’”
At this declaration, the Democrats in the House chamber erupted in boisterous cheers, providing further sustained ovations as the president explained his bold plan. He promised to hire 10 million unemployed Americans—a full 10 million!—in federally funded jobs by the end of the year. He proposed to put them to work repairing highways and building high-speed rail, constructing and repairing schools, restoring and expanding parks and recreation facilities, planting trees, tutoring kids, providing day care, caring for the sick and elderly, policing our streets and neighborhoods, putting up new, environmentally responsible power plants, cleaning up pollution, building homes for the homeless, helping update and replace the equipment for our military.
Recognizing that some of the unemployed won’t possess the skills they need to fill the new jobs, Obama pledged to hire them immediately nonetheless and to assign them as needed to intensive job-retraining, at full pay, for three to six months. “Is it better to continue paying out public assistance to people who are out of work, or to sign them up right away to learn new skills that will restart their careers and rebuild the American economy?”
In the president’s rousing vision, the new jobs program, designated “America Works,” would hire people immediately for desperately needed federal projects while simultaneously providing money from Washington for positions at the state and local level, as well as partially subsidizing new jobs in the private sector.
Warming to his message, Obama declared: “Cynics will respond to this plan the way they always react to new ideas and fresh starts. They will say, ‘You can’t do that’ or claim that ‘we can’t afford it.’ But Americans know better. They know that we can’t afford not to act, or to protect a stale, shabby status quo at a time of national crisis.”
“How can we say we can’t afford to start hiring again, to do all the jobs that desperately need doing, when all around us we see accumulations of wealth unprecedented in human history?”
The president’s plan would tap those concentrations of wealth to fund his vast jobs program with an emergency tax increase on the wealthiest Americans—restoring the 50 percent top marginal rate that Ronald Reagan championed in his initial tax reform of 1981. “My Republican friends love to cite President Reagan’s administration as the golden age of American conservatism. And I propose to follow his great example as a tax reformer. No, I won’t raise taxes on ordinary Americans—and 98 percent of you will pay nothing more. Even the wealthiest Americans won’t see a difference in what they pay on the first $250,000 they earn each year.
“But in tough times, every family needs to reassess its economic priorities. And right now the American family needs to ask, what’s more important—new yachts and island vacations for billionaires, or providing jobs for decent people who need to work?” To underline his point, Obama cited 10 wealthy Americans, seated in the gallery, who came to Washington to express their own eagerness to pay taxes at the higher rate.
To conclude his tightly focused speech, which lasted only 20 minutes, not the usual hourlong slog, the president challenged Congress to approve his program within 30 days. He grew emotional as he dramatically took a folded letter out of his pocket and, abandoning his teleprompter, read it slowly. The writer worked in a furniture manufacturing plant in North Carolina before its operations relocated to Asia. Out of work for more than four years, he felt humiliated that he couldn’t provide for his children and wanted no more handouts—only the chance to work hard to help his family and his country. Pausing for maximum impact, the president ended his address with a fervent near-whisper: “I say—and you all know—it’s time we give him that chance. Let’s put America back to work!”
The media for the most part swooned over Obama’s “visionary” and “compassionate” presentation; even conservative commentators gave grudging respect to its boldness. Insiders understood that the Republican House would never honor the deadline. “Yes, we tried to do something about the awful unemployment numbers,” Democrats could say, “but the Republicans refused to ask their rich friends to pay more so we could hire millions.” If nothing else, the president’s ballyhooed bit of political theater could help shift responsibility for the pain of unemployment: instead of blaming him, angry voters might well turn on the heartless Republicans who blocked the instantaneous hiring of most of the unemployed.
The political fiction offered above should sound alarms for conservatives who seek to extend their progress in 2012. With Obama’s campaign already on a path to raise $1 billion through donations from his diehard loyalists, he isn’t worried about losing Wall Street support. Some of his closest advisers, as well as progressive pundits like former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, have already begun pushing for a radical, vastly ambitious new job program like the one described here.
Administration officials still hope the unemployment rate will drop without such a program. They feel deeply invested in defending their previous economic initiatives (stimulus, financial reform, auto bailouts) as brilliantly successful. Nonetheless, if the lousy numbers continue, conservatives should expect presidential grandstanding that offers some showy, simplistic remedy as the definitive “solution” to unemployment.
The best way for Republicans to anticipate and undermine this Democratic thrust would be to move first with a credible job plan of their own, which also would end Nancy Pelosi’s tiresome whine that “the Republicans have now controlled the House for 190 days and still no jobs bill.” Of course the conservative proposal should involve unburdening business to encourage more jobs, not crushing corporate America to grow the public sector.
Can Republicans win the argument against a big new federal jobs boondoggle? Of course the GOP can prevail, given deep public worry over debt, skepticism surrounding failed government programs, and obvious questions about any election year gambit: If this idea counts as worthy and workable, why did the president wait to propose it till the last few months before his mandate expired?
The answer to that question is so obvious it could help discredit even artfully crafted new initiatives by an increasingly desperate administration.