President Obama speaks Wednesday at a town hall meeting at Wyffels Hybrids… (Carolyn Kaster, AP )
Reporting from Washington and Alpha, Ill. — The jobs package that President Obama plans to unveil shortly after Labor Day could include tens of billions of dollars to renovate thousands of dilapidated public schools and a tax break to encourage businesses to hire new workers, according to people familiar with White House deliberations.
As aides work to put together the proposal, they are also hammering out a companion plan to reduce federal budget deficits over the next decade, which Obama would share with the 12-member congressional "super committee" charged with finding long-term fixes for the growing national debt.
The deficit reduction plan would rely on some of the ideas Obama worked on in private negotiations with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) this summer, aides said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a proposal that is still taking shape.
The two-phase plan would probably require Obama to argue for spending more money in the short term while reducing the federal deficit over a longer period. Many economists support that combination, saying cuts in spending should wait until the economy is stronger. But political strategists say it has been difficult to communicate that idea to voters.
Obama pushed the idea Wednesday during a stop in Alpha, Ill. "Yes, some of these things cost money," he said. "The way we pay for it is by doing more on deficit reduction."
Obama promised during his three-day bus tour of rural towns in the Midwest that he would present a jobs plan when Congress returns from its August hiatus. In doing so, he adopted a more combative tone than he generally showed during the weeks of debate this summer over raising the national debt limit. At every stop on the tour, the president issued a challenge to Republicans: Work together on a bipartisan effort to expand U.S. employment or take the blame for blocking efforts to improve the economy.
"What is needed is action by Congress. It's time for the games to stop. It's time to put country first," he said at a stop in Cannon Falls, Minn. And in Peosta, Iowa, after outlining measures he has already proposed, Obama said, "We could do even more if Congress is willing to get in the game."
Obama's tone may reflect lessons learned in the debt ceiling fight. Many Democrats felt he made a mistake in seeking a deal with Republican adversaries who were determined not to give him one. In the coming months, aides said, Obama still plans to push for bipartisan support. But, they said, if Republicans don't go along, he will take his case to voters, rather than again become bogged down in protracted negotiations.
"He'll take the case to the public about what they are stopping — and why," said one senior administration official.
The elements of Obama's plan remain under debate. But backers of the school renovation plan and the tax credit for hiring new workers think the proposals could attract Republican support. At the same time, they think that if the debate becomes a public confrontation, the ideas would give Obama the upper hand in a battle for voters.
"I like the optics of it," said Jared Bernstein, a former administration economics advisor and a proponent of the school rehab program. "It's the public school in your community, not a bunch of folks on a distant highway."
Supporters estimate that each $1 billion in school construction work would generate up to 10,000 jobs. A $50-billion program, for example, would underwrite half a million jobs by that calculation.
The average U.S. school building is 40 years old, and many are suffering from neglect — poor ventilation, energy inefficiencies and mold. A report by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2009 gave the nation's public school facilities a D grade.
The proposal for a tax break for new hires would come in the form of a new tax credit based on a business' change in employment from the beginning of the year to the end. A business that expanded its payroll from 100 to 102 workers, for example, would get a tax credit for the two new employees.
Obama has been under mounting pressure to take stronger steps to curb unemployment. The White House has put out a series of proposals — trade deals, a patent overhaul and a modest amount of public works spending — that have failed to spark much enthusiasm.
"If it's more of the same," one Democratic senator said of the patent proposal, "that's not a jobs bill."
As Obama's economic team tries to come up with a more ambitious plan, its members are under enormous strain. Depleted by departures, the group hasn't gotten a break since the start of the debt ceiling negotiations that ended Aug. 2, administration officials say. They are developing what the White House calls "new initiatives" to spur economic growth by way of congressional action or — if negotiations become a repeat of the debt ceiling stalemate — unilaterally by Obama's executive order.