President Barack Obama laid out a series of familiar proposals on Tuesday that compose the “cornerstones” of his second-term economic policy agenda, challenging House Republicans to do something that seems unlikely – take action on his ideas.
In a major policy speech at a high school in Galesburg, Ill., the president outlined a series of proposals that he argued would boost middle-class security and enable better economic mobility. But Obama also nodded to the political challenges he’s encountered. Washington has “taken its eye off the ball” and gridlock “has gotten worse,” he said, placing the blame squarely with the House GOP.
“A growing number of Republican senators are trying to get things done, like an immigration bill that economists say will boost our economy by more than a trillion dollars,” he said. “But a faction of Republicans in the House won’t even give that bill a vote, and gutted a farm bill that America’s farmers and most vulnerable children depend on.”
The policies outlined by Obama on Wednesday are largely not new. The president called in his remarks for new incentives to encourage manufacturing jobs in the U.S. and for investments to infrastructure, like transportation projects and expanding access to high-speed Internet. Obama also outlined his plans to encourage homeownership and ease the process of saving for retirement. And the president pointed to the importance of health care, extolling the virtues of his signature Affordable Care Act and denouncing a “politically motivated misinformation campaign” for trying to derail the law’s enactment.
But much of the president’s speech seemed intended to brace for and frame a series of battles this fall with Republicans in Congress over government spending and the nation’s debt limit.
“With an endless parade of distractions, political posturing and phony scandals, Washington has taken its eye off the ball. And I am here to say this needs to stop. Short-term thinking and stale debates are not what this moment requires,” Obama said. “And as Washington prepares to enter another budget debate, the stakes for our middle class could not be higher.”
The government’s authority to finance its debts – which Congress last extended in February – is set to expire sometime this fall, and the Democratic Senate and Republican House have not agreed on a budget to govern spending in the coming fiscal year.
On Tuesday, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, laid down a hardline marker ahead of those battles, renewing his demand that every dollar of new borrowing authority be offset by a matching dollar of spending cut.
“We're not going to raise the debt ceiling without real cuts in spending,” Boehner told reporters on Capitol Hill. “It's as simple as that.”
And on Wednesday, the speaker took to the House floor ahead of Obama’s remarks to mock the proposals as warmed-over: “What’s the point? What’s it going to accomplish?” Boehner asked. “It’s a hollow shell; it’s an Easter egg with no candy in it.”
The intractable relationship between Republicans in Congress and Obama has been the dominant theme in Washington since the GOP won control of the House in the 2010 midterm elections. Lawmaking has lurched mostly from crisis to crisis, leaving the White House and lawmakers to hash out some patchwork compromise, usually at the last minute before a deadline.
And though Obama seemed determined to avoid another repeat scenario – and preserve many of his second-term priorities – it was unclear whether he would finally score a breakthrough. There have been signs of a thaw between the administration and some Senate Republicans as of late; the Washington newspaper Politico reported that Obama has found an unlikely ally as of late in Arizona Sen. John McCain, his challenger in the 2008 presidential campaign.
But the president offered his own diagnosis for gridlock in Congress, blaming a much-discussed schism within the GOP for a lack of progress on his agenda.
“The fact is, there are Republicans in Congress right now who privately agree with me on many of the ideas I’ll be proposing, but worry they’ll face swift political retaliation for saying so,” Obama said. “Others will dismiss every idea I put forward either because they’re playing to their most strident supporters, or because they have a fundamentally different vision for America – one that says inequality is both inevitable and just; one that says an unfettered free market without any restraints inevitably produces the best outcomes, regardless of the pain and uncertainty imposed on ordinary families."
Wednesday afternoon’s speech was the first of several the president planned to deliver this week in Missouri, Illinois and Florida, and in the weeks to come. The speeches have been billed as a bookend to Obama’s speech in Osawatomie, Ks., where he described an overarching vision of how to bolster the middle class – a narrative which played into his successful re-election campaign in 2012.
The fight couldn’t come at a worse moment for both Obama and especially members of Congress, whose unpopularity plumbed new depths in Wednesday’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. The survey found that a record 83 percent of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing, and that 57 percent of Americans (an all-time high mark on this question) would vote to defeat and replace every member of Congress if such an option were available.