How Obama put the ball in the Republicans’ court

Armoring his program with conservative ideals, president urges lawmakers in both parties to help struggling Americans and get the economy rolling again.

Fact: President Obama’s approval rating is languishing at 43 percent.

Fact: 22 million Americans are out of work.

Fact: 60 percent of the public disapproves of the way the president is handling job creation.

So, it wasn’t exactly an ideal moment to alert the American people, summon both houses of Congress, and address the nation on jobs. But with hopes fading, the market plunging, and even “friends” like Robert Redford and complaining, President Obama had no other choice but to go public.

How did our beleaguered leader do in the address that will serve as his rallying cry for 2012 reelection?

Well, he didn’t exactly hit it out of the park—there were still too many platitudes, not enough detail, and the hectoring “Pass this jobs bill” refrain became annoying. But despite the odds against him and contrary to the universal “same old, same old” criticism from the right, the president did smack a clear double, which successfully put the pressure on conservative Republicans to “put up or shut up.”

Here’s how the president handled the primary challenges that confronted him when he took to the congressional podium last night.

He ‘manned up.’

If ever a speech was set up to fail, it was this one.

A president who had begun his term with such high hopes as a leader and a speaker had clearly diminished himself and diluted his impact. Earlier in his term, it was “all Obama all the time” on television and on the pulpit. But as the economy soured and the president’s programs fizzled, Obama’s clout as a speaker diminished. His act grew tired, and his words lost their impact.

That’s why it was a great risk for the president to choose a rare joint session of Congress to deliver his jobs speech. Obama could just as easily given a lower-key Oval Office address. If nothing else, the choice of venue raised the stakes of the address and underscored the president’s confidence that he could deliver the goods.

He got specific.

One recurring criticism of this president is his propensity to talk in generalities rather than to get specific. How much would this program cost? How would this initiative work? What would this mean for the deficit?

Obama could ill afford another discussion of a “stimulus” that couldn’t account for many new jobs. So last night, his thesis was crystal clear.

“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.”

Fair enough. But how, specifically, would it work? Well, for one thing:

“All small-business owners will also see their payroll taxes cut in half next year. If you have 50 employees making an average salary, that’s an $80,000 tax cut.”

For another:

“Companies will get a $4,000 tax credit if they hire anyone who has spent more than six months looking for a job.”

And for another:

“It’s time to clear the way for a series of trade agreements that would make it easier for American companies to sell their products in Panama, Colombia, and South Korea—while also helping the workers whose jobs have been affected by global competition.”

Sure, Tea Partiers still groused about “warmed-over policies,” but there were enough meaningful specifics to force any conservative to wonder: If not these ideas, then what?

He accommodated his adversaries, while sticking to his guns.

Rather than succumbing to his party’s far left wing and castigating “obstructionist” Republicans, Obama instead chose a perceptive path of accommodating Republican desires.

  • He proposed an independent fund for jobs to improve 35,000 schools, borrowing an idea supported by the very conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
  • He proposed a middle-class tax cut, reminding conservatives that “some of you have sworn oaths to never raise any taxes on anyone as long as you live.”
  • He proposed that Congress cover his entire American Jobs Act with commensurate budget cuts.
  • He proposed reducing the deficit by adjusting Medicare and Medicaid, supporting small business, and reforming the tax code-all objectives of Republicans.

Before his liberal Democrat base went into cardiac arrest over these concessions, the president reassured his base that he still opposes tax breaks for oil companies and the affluent.

Finally, he underscored the urgency.

The greatest knock on congressional Republicans—and one reason why the approval numbers of Congress barely reach double digits—is that all they say is “no.”

No new ideas.

No job-creating proposals.

No offense.

Indeed, the only immediate conservative priority seems to be to “defeat Barack Obama.”

The president wisely conclude his speech by alluding—in human terms—to how dangerous and damaging this “waiting game,” could be for struggling Americans.

“The next election is 14 months away. And the people who sent us here—the people who hired us to work for them—they don’t have the luxury of waiting 14 months. Some of them are living week to week; paycheck to paycheck; even day to day. They need help, and they need it now.”

In the end, the president appealed for compromise, for action, and to do what’s right.

“Regardless of the arguments we’ve had in the past, regardless of the arguments we’ll have in the future, this plan is the right thing to do right now. You should pass it. And I intend to take that message to every corner of this country. I also ask every American who agrees to lift your voice and tell the people who are gathered here tonight that you want action now. Tell Washington that doing nothing is not an option. Remind us that if we act as one nation, and one people, we have it within our power to meet this challenge.”

In other words, “Republicans, it’s your move.”

Fraser P. Seitel has been a communications consultant, commentator, author and teacher for 40 years. He teaches public relations at NYU and is the author of the Prentice- Hall textbook “The Practice of Public Relations,” now in its 11th edition.

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