President Barack Obama recommended a number of reasonable and familiar proposals Thursday night to create jobs and prop up the faltering economy that are fine — as far as they go. Yet their ambition does not match the scope of the challenges facing Florida and the nation. The president predictably chose a measured approach aimed at winning support from Republicans in Congress, but compromise in Washington remains elusive, and Americans may be resigned to a political stalemate until after the 2012 election.
Obama recommended extending and broadening the payroll tax cut for workers as part of a package costing $447 billion, more than half the size of the original stimulus package and likely too large for Republicans to stomach. He also would extend unemployment benefits that are scheduled to expire at the end of the year. With consumer confidence at historic lows, those efforts would help put a bit more money into Americans' pockets and increase their purchasing power. But they would not directly put more people back to work.
More encouraging is the president's proposal to spend money to repair 35,000 schools and build transportation projects. That would be particularly helpful in Florida, where the Legislature failed to provide any money this year for public school maintenance. Even Republican Gov. Rick Scott has seen the wisdom of advancing road projects to create jobs and take advantage of lower costs. But at $140 billion, this portion is too small even though Republicans, who inaccurately label the first stimulus as a failure, can be expected to reflexively reject it.
Other portions of the president's American Jobs Act are aimed directly at appeasing Republican demands. Republicans routinely call for tax cuts for businesses, and Obama includes payroll tax cuts for small businesses and tax credits for those that hire workers. A general tax cut for small businesses could encourage hiring, but Floridians know all about the pitfalls of providing tax incentives for jobs that too often are low-paying or fail to materialize.
For Republicans obsessed with the federal deficit rather than creating jobs, the president pledged that the cost of his jobs legislation would be paid for by additional spending cuts and new revenue. But the new bipartisan super committee created by the debt ceiling deal is just starting to work on finding $1.5 trillion in savings. It seems unlikely that there will be an epiphany on Capitol Hill resulting in a grand bargain on spending cuts, tax reform and entitlement reform before Christmas.
"The people of this country work hard to meet their responsibilities," Obama said. "The question tonight is whether we'll meet ours."
The likely answer, unfortunately, is no.
This is a wounded president facing a historic economic challenge while saddled with his lowest job approval ratings, a national unemployment rate above 9 percent and a Congress held hostage by tea party-influenced Republicans who smell blood. They would rather cut government spending and eliminate regulations in the false hope of creating jobs than invest in the economy or hand Obama any modest victories.
Obama correctly pointed out that unemployed and struggling workers do not have the luxury of waiting 14 months until after the election for help. So with fewer rhetorical flourishes or new initiatives than his previous speeches, the president attempted Thursday night to put Republicans on the defensive and change the political calculus. The likelihood that his recommendations would create significantly more jobs any time soon is remote — and so is the possibility that Congress will pass more than a handful of them.