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Obama must get bold, tell Republicans ‘It’s on’

Posted Aug. 24, 2011, at 5:09 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 24, 2011, at 5:24 p.m.

As he golfs and bikes on Martha’s Vineyard, President Barack Obama will have plenty of time to think about how to get his presidency back on track.

Some aides are calling the major speech he plans to deliver after Labor Day a “reset” of his administration. That may understate its political importance.

Obama prides himself on being a clutch player. Although the election is still 15 months away, the speech is like a critical third-and-long in football. Victory doesn’t depend on conversion, but it sure would help. If fall brings no better news than summer, the president could enter 2012 trailing Texas Governor Rick Perry, a guy who thinks Social Security is a “Ponzi scheme” and that the chairman of the Federal Reserve is a traitor.

Obama must work on two tracks — one idealistic, the other practical. The moment calls for him to offer a big vision for how to fix the economy, even if it doesn’t have a prayer of passage. Then he should unveil smaller actions that could win congressional approval, plus a few imaginative executive orders that might let him move the needle on employment unilaterally.

The big revelation this week about the president’s strategy is that he will be specific about where he thinks the new special congressional committee should find the additional $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction called for in the debt-ceiling deal. I’m told by the White House that contrary to House Speaker John Boehner’s claims, Obama did send Boehner a short paper that detailed trillions in savings during their unsuccessful “grand bargain” negotiations in July, but it was never released publicly. This plan will be.

Most significantly, it will specify savings beyond the $1.5 trillion and use those extra billions for job creation. That would mean the president would “pay for” every dime of new stimulus. He won’t label it stimulus, of course. Stimulus has been stigmatized. If he’s smart he’ll call it a Jobs First agenda, or something else that shows he’s in touch with the average household.

At least the president is on task. After headlines about a pivot to jobs in December 2009, September 2010, January 2011, May 2011 and July 2011, he’s finally shifting the conversation to what Americans truly care about.

That is, if no crisis intervenes. Obama’s failure to drive home a jobs agenda is partly his fault (he thought until June that the economy was improving) and partly the consequence of the country’s attention being drawn to other stories, such as the Gulf oil spill and the Arab Spring.

This week’s bus tour across three Midwestern states seemed to refresh the president and improve his presentation. He began talking about “rebuilding America” instead of his old professorial references to an “infrastructure bank,” which is a good idea but tone deaf politically considering that many voters don’t really know what infrastructure means and despise banks.

More important, Obama began sticking it to Congress, laying the groundwork for a 1948 Harry Truman-style campaign. Rebooting his presidency will require a bold plan that says to an obstructionist opposition: “It’s on, guys!”

The conventional wisdom in Washington is that nothing will pass because Republicans are committed above all else to depriving the president of any victories. They’ve flip-flopped on everything from the creation of a debt commission to comprehensive immigration reform to extending the payroll-tax holiday (tax cuts, for crying out loud!) just to stick it to him.

But polls that show Tea Party Republicans are currently less popular than atheists or Muslims could change their political calculation. Swaggering Republican honchos may find that they need to be seen as getting a few things done, even if it means the president gets a little credit, too.

The specifics of Obama’s speech are secret, and many haven’t been worked out. But I hear that it will contain more than simple pleas to Congress to pass the economic agenda the president began offering this summer, which includes extending the payroll-tax holiday, approving public-works spending, enacting a patent bill, ratifying trade deals and extending unemployment insurance.

Don’t be surprised to see him also propose a major tax credit for hiring new workers, construction money for schools, an ambitious youth employment program (if he doesn’t hold a high percentage of the youth vote, he loses the election) and a few of the other job-creation ideas he’s been demanding his Cabinet and staff cook up. Some of these ideas can be implemented without Congress, like providing debt relief for strapped homeowners.

One good speech — or a hundred — will not solve the jobs crisis. But boldly confronting the Republicans with popular ideas that are hard to vote against will at least tell the country what Obama stands for, and it may even have the practical effect of putting some Americans back to work.

Jonathan Alter is the author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.”

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