Obama at crossroads in job creation politics

When President Barack Obama delivers his jobs speech next week, will he be playing Harry Truman or Jimmy Carter?

Is the president prepping to go big and bold or small and practical?

Boxed in by last November’s landslide, when the Republicans gained 63 House seats House, the largest midterm win since 1938, Obama seems unlikely to be able to persuade Congress to pass what his progressive supporters are demanding: a new economic stimulus bill to create millions of jobs in construction, public education and health care.

But with an election year looming and the bully pulpit at his disposal, the president has an opportunity to begin drawing sharp contrasts with Republicans over policy decisions that will shape the nation in coming decades.

The substance of the speech was overshadowed Tuesday by a skirmish between Obama and House Speaker John Boehner over the president wanting to pitch his job ideas to a joint session of Congress next Wednesday night at exactly the hour of a debate among Republican presidential contenders, sponsored by NBC News and POLITICO. 

(Msnbc.com is a joint venture between NBC Universal and Microsoft.)

Boehner rebuffed Obama, saying the House wasn’t in session until 6:30 Wednesday night and more than three hours were needed for a security sweep, so that evening was a no-go.

The White House then agreed to Boehner's suggestion to appear before Congress on Thursday night instead. Late Thursday, the White House and Boehner's office said the speech would begin at 7 p.m. ET.

All drama aside, Obama faces two different paths next week and further into the 2012 campaign: the Truman 1948 route — denouncing a “do-nothing Congress” and “Republican gluttons of privilege,” as the 33rd president did — or the direction Carter took in his 1979 “crisis of confidence” speech.

While trying to demonstrate his concern and to recount his earnest attempt to get Congress to pass energy legislation, Carter also seemed to display a helplessness that was immortalized in the July 18, 1979 Herblock cartoon of the president, clutching a “Visitor’s Guide to Washington,” standing in front of the desk in the Oval Office, banging on it, and demanding to know, “Who’s in Charge Here?”

For the moment, when it comes to economic policy, the answer to that ‘Who’s in Charge’ question is: not Obama — and he hasn’t been since the GOP triumph last November. But only he has the ability to change that dynamic.

Heal the partisan divides or sharpen them?
In 2008 Obama won partly because some voters wanted a president who might transcend petty, partisan politics and, as he said in his Election Night victory speech, “heal the divides that have held back our progress."

For Obama to play a feisty, fighting Truman would require a personality shift.

But “America loves a second act. Plenty of people have reinvented themselves,” said Justin Ruben, head of the progressive group Moveon.org, who is urging Obama to advocate an unapologetic, bold job creation plan.

Obama “needs to fight tooth and nail to revive the economy, or the consequences — not just the political ones — will be devastating,” said another progressive leader, Darcy Burner, executive director of ProgressiveCongress.org. She and Ruben were among the 72 progressive and labor union leaders who sent an appeal to Obama this week urging him to propose a robust public-sector jobs plan.

'Teetering on the brink'
“A lot of American families are already teetering on the brink,” Burner said. “If the economy nose-dives between now and Election Day, it seems extremely unlikely that he’ll be given a second term by voters. They deserve someone who will go to the mat for them. If he won’t fight for them, they’ll choose someone who they believe will.”

In Gallup’s presidential job approval poll last week, only 40 percent approved of Obama’s performance, a low point for his presidency. He won only 32 percent approval among white voters, who account for about three-quarters of the electorate.

The crossover point in the Gallup poll on Americans’ confidence in Obama’s handling of the economy came back in mid-2009, when more people began disapproving than supporting his economy stewardship. The stimulus had been enacted only a few months earlier.

As of mid-August, only 26 percent approved of his handling of the economy.

Yet Ronald Reagan, at about the same point in his first term as Obama is now, faced an unemployment rate a bit higher and had job approval numbers that were as low as Obama’s are. That didn’t stop Reagan from winning in a landslide in 1984.

But the unemployment rate was declining when Reagan won re-election.

The unemployment rate has been close to or above 9 percent since April of 2009 and 2.3 million more people were jobless in July than when Obama took office.

Did Obama have his only chance?
The crucial question is: did Obama have his one and only chance with the 2009 stimulus? Can he make Americans believe that another stimulus, under a different guise, would help, and that even though he is trying to help them congressional Republicans are blocking him?

The Congressional Budget Office estimated last week that Obama's 2009 stimulus package had increased the number of people employed in the second quarter of this year by between 1 million and 2.9 million. But many Americans remain skeptical about it.

“The (2009) stimulus was a half-stimulus; it was half successful,” Burner said. “But we should be investing wholeheartedly in America. Plenty of extremely smart people are telling him that we need greater public investment to jumpstart the economy; he needs to listen to them, and then he needs to sell that investment to the American people.”

While it isn’t yet clear what proposals Obama will make next Wednesday, some of the ideas being circulated have been around in one form or another for 30 years: for example, an infrastructure bank to fund the building of highways, bridges, and other projects is a concept proposed by then House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt in 1992 and on the state level by Republican governors Pete Wilson of California in 1993 and Tom Kean of New Jersey in 1983.

Progressives are supporting Illinois Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky’s two-year $227 billion program which would hire the unemployed to work as public school maintenance workers, teachers, nurses and in other public sector jobs.

Moveon.org’s Ruben said that “Negotiating 101” dictates that Obama crusade for a plan like Schakowsky’s because he is negotiating with Republicans who “will oppose even their own ideas in order to deny the president a political victory. If you just keep negotiating against yourself and keep proposing things you think they might go for,” such as additional tax incentives to businesses to spur hiring, then defeat, or at least letdown, seems likely, he said.

'Better be big enough to work'
Instead Obama must call for a big and easily understood plan, Ruben argued. Two of the lessons of the 2009 stimulus, he said, were that if the president proposes a plan to get the economy moving “it better be big enough to work” and “it needs to be comprehensible” to people who aren’t economists or policy nerds.

Ideas such as another tax break for corporations to hire people won’t inspire grassroots Democrats to want to work for Obama’s reelection next year, Ruben said.

Give progressives a plan they can believe in and they’ll go door to door to try to re-elect him. But, Ruben said, “what keeps me up at night,” is that the possibility that progressives in battleground states such as Ohio, which Obama narrowly won in 2008, won’t be inspired to canvass neighborhoods for him. “That intensity really matters in campaigns. That’s what I’m concerned about.”

But Pennsylvania-based GOP consultant Mark Harris, who managed conservative Republican Pat Toomey’s successful Senate campaign last year, said a stimulus “is politically dead.” The perceived ineffectiveness and $825 billion cost of the stimulus was a major issue in Toomey’s victory last year in a state that Obama had easily carried in 2008.

“The battleground in this (2012) election is upper-income women and downscale men, and across the board for those voters, the spending policies in Washington are one of their biggest concerns,” Harris said. “They understand that every dollar that Obama spends to try to shore up his re-election is a dollar that will be on their kids’ tab.”

He added, “If you’re one of the unemployed, I think you want the government to do something that would actually help you, but that is mixed with a cynicism about the failure of government to do anything so far.”

But Harris said “I think the president’s real political problem isn’t the 9 percent unemployed, it’s the vast majority of other Pennsylvanians who have jobs, but are worried about losing them or aren’t working as many hours as they’d want to. They understand that this bill is going to come due at some point. Someone is going to have pay the taxes for all of this.”

And they fear it will be them, Harris said.