Last night President Obama chose the symbolic setting of a joint session of Congress to deliver a blunt message to lawmakers and appeal to Americans that the nation’s economic crisis requires the abandonment of partisan divisions and immediate action. Telling Democrats and Republicans in the House chamber that Americans “don’t care about politics,” the President laid out the parameters of his “American Jobs Act,” a comprehensive proposal to stimulate job creation. The package is estimated to amount to $500 million.
The President’s speech was framed by last week’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) employment report for August that showed zero job growth for the month and persistently high unemployment. Subsequent polls have shown significant erosion in support of President Obama, with his approval among Black voters, while still relatively high, also declining. During the last two months there has been a very public debate growing within the African-American community over the degree to which the President should be criticized for his performance on the economy. With Blacks faring the worse among all workers in this downturn, even Democratic members of the Congressional Black Caucus have taken to calling the President out on the need to address Black joblessness. Prior to the President’s speech the Shirley Chisholm Presidential Accountability Commission released a statement calling on President Obama to make a targeted effort to address unemployment among Black workers. With the 2012 presidential election already in gear and Republican hopefuls taking aim, the President is aware of what is at stake if he cannot get his jobs package approved by Congress.
In his speech President Obama outlined a plan that cuts payroll taxes in half and a 50% small business tax cut. The plan also calls for an extension of unemployment benefits for an additional year, and tax credits to hire the long-term unemployed who have been jobless for six months or more. The President also specifically referenced young adults and indicated the plan would include tax cuts for summer hiring of low-income youth. One of the major points of the President’s proposal is spending on transportation infrastructure and school construction, with President Obama urging Congress to act now to put millions of Americans to work on projects to repair bridges, roads and aging school buildings. In addition, the President said his plan includes funding to hire teachers. One of the areas that drew applause from Republicans was his mention of tax cuts to hire veterans, drawing lawmakers from both parties to their feet. The other moment of cross-party reaction was when the President referenced efforts to cut bureaucratic red tape and government programs that have been proven ineffective.
President Obama also spoke to the need to adjust the tax code so that everyone pays their fair share, citing billionaire investor Warren Buffet who has called for an increase in the tax rate on wealthy Americans. The President said his plan would also focus on the trade imbalance, making the export of American made products a priority. He also claimed that all of the spending in his proposal would be paid for, and said he would soon introduce a new deficit reduction plan that would even include an adjustment in Medicare benefits that is politically unpopular among Democrats.
Throughout his speech President Obama reminded Republicans that many of the elements of his jobs proposal were those either supported by GOP lawmakers or had enjoyed bipartisan support in the past. The 2012 election was the 800 pound gorilla in the room, with Republican candidates having debated the night before and the President’s speech delayed a day to accommodate the debate. However, he did not shy away from putting the issue of politics up front, telling lawmakers that Americans “don’t have the luxury of waiting 14 months” for Washington to address the jobs crisis. The politics of the moment was on display as the President made clear his support of collective bargaining, in a nod to organized labor. He also gave a spirited defense of government, reminding his audience of the many instances when government spending has served the national interest and appealed to common sense among Republican lawmakers who have pledged to oppose any government spending.