WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is planning to propose a jobs program tonight that could entail at least $300 billion in tax cuts, local government aid and spending on infrastructure such as roads and schools as he aims to restore public confidence in his ability to boost the economy.
Obama, whose approval ratings are at record lows, will present his proposals before a joint session of Congress tonight in an address that could mark a critical moment in his presidency. His renewed focus on employment comes as the economic recovery has essentially stalled, with a discouraging government report last week showing that job creation came to a halt in August.
The White House has been developing a package of jobs proposals since August, when Obama completed months of negotiations with Republicans over a deficit-reduction deal.
The president's proposals would come as the Federal Reserve, which is independent of the administration, is moving toward new steps of its own to give the economy a boost. With a pivotal meeting two weeks away, Fed officials are strongly considering measures aimed at lowering interest rates on mortgages, business investments and other kinds of long-term loans.
In unveiling his jobs program, Obama is planning to mention measures that the administration has undertaken lately to benefit the ailing housing market, including a program that helps reduce payments for jobless homeowners. As part of this housing effort, he is likely to call for a broader refinancing of mortgages.
With the exception of the housing program, all the measures would require congressional approval. White House officials acknowledge that the full package has slim prospects of passing. Republicans are deeply skeptical of new public spending.
But White House advisers say they're confident that, at the very least, the payroll tax cut will be renewed because it so directly affects the take-home pay of middle-class workers. And they are hopeful that other ideas may gain traction, such as an infrastructure bank, which wouldn't rely exclusively on federal funds.
David Axelrod, a close adviser to the president, said Obama will make clear that Republicans are to blame if they don't agree to the jobs measures.
"People recognize the obstacles here and where they're coming from. We don't go up there with the anticipation that nothing will pass and nothing will work," Axelrod said. "But Harry Truman once said if you can't make them see the light, make them feel the heat. And that's what the president is going to do."
Next week, the president will announce detailed plans to offset the proposed federal spending with increased revenue and reductions in spending down the road.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Wednesday blasted the economic stimulus that Obama pushed through Congress two years ago and suggested that more big spending now would be a mistake.
"According to the president, anyone who opposes this agenda is playing partisan games," McConnell said. "Well, the president can attempt to blame our economic problems all he wants on his political adversaries or his predecessors or on natural disasters. But at the end of the day, he's the one, as he's said himself, who's responsible for what happens on his watch."
Top White House officials have long argued that significant action to bolster the economic recovery was necessary, but they had concluded that there was no political appetite for new spending. The significant deterioration in the economy, which is in far worse shape than the president anticipated, has made them revisit that calculation.
"The president has never stopped pushing for stronger investments in areas like infrastructure and housing," said Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council. "What has changed in recent months is that as economic projections have worsened, more and more policymakers and experts are seeing the importance of these policies for jump-starting growth and job creation."
Obama and his aides have begun to brief allies and lawmakers on the major elements of the plan, though they are withholding details, the Washington Post reported.
"They talk about this being big, bold and on a scale to address the problem," said Bill Samuel, the AFL-CIO's legislative director. "I think they generally believe we will be happy with the speech, and they know what it will take to make us happy. They're not dampening expectations."
Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said he thinks Obama's plan has the "right combination" of measures that will have a chance at passage in the Republican-led House, but will also serve as a way to draw contrasts for voters between the GOP and Obama.
"It would have been a mistake to try and narrow the bore of the speech to the point that it might get out of the Republican-controlled Congress," Van Hollen said. "That might be a very short speech. What the president wants to do is tell the country what he thinks is necessary and to fight to get as much as possible."