President Obama speaks during the 93rd American Legion National Convention… (Cory Ryan / Getty Images )
As the White House prepares to roll out its new jobs package, President Obama is under intensifying pressure from his political base to come out with an ambitious plan that puts a real dent in the unemployment rate.
The White House prefers an approach that stands a chance of winning bipartisan support. But the left isn't persuaded by this strategy. There are two ways to sway votes on Capitol Hill: lobbying members privately behind closed doors, or shaping a bottom-up consensus in the broader electorate.
The president's base believes that a substantial jobs package – one that puts people to work right away even if it comes with a high price tag – might create a public groundswell that Congress can't ignore.
That's not how Obama has been operating over the past year. He has instead looked for elusive common ground with Republicans, putting forward ideas that square with Republicans' economic doctrine.
Fearing that Obama will go down this road again when he delivers his jobs speech next week, his liberal base is pushing him to take a more confrontational stand. They want Obama to channel FDR, not Coolidge.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in an interview that Obama needs to stand up for a jobs plan that is adequate to the moment.
Unemployment is now 9.1%. And the jobs report that comes out Friday is expected to show the U.S. didn't create enough jobs in August to keep up with population growth.
"Who knows what's politically achievable until we try?" Trumka said. "The president should articulate a solution of the size and scale necessary to solve the problem. We have a jobs crisis. … If you do only what you think the other side and the 'tea party' will agree to, then they control the agenda."
Trumka laid out a six-point jobs plan of his own that goes far beyond what Obama has endorsed to date. His proposal includes rebuilding schools, roads, ports and energy systems; reviving the manufacturing sector and stopping the flow of jobs overseas; preventing layoffs in state and local governments; and stepping up measures to avoid home foreclosures.
It seems doubtful Obama will come out with something on so dramatic a scale. Take infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that in 2009 the nation needed to invest $2.2 trillion in levees, bridges, roads, railways and schools. Overall, the society gave the nation's infrastructure a grade of "D-."
Trumka would invest $400 billion a year over 10 years on public works projects. Thus far, Obama has called for an infrastructure "bank” that would use $30 billion to help restore the nation's network of roads, bridges, tunnels and ports.
For those worried about the deficit, Trumka insists that job creation and deficit reduction go hand in hand.
"They complement one another," he said. "You want to get rid of the deficit? Put 25 million people back to work and you won't have a deficit problem."
The AFL-CIO, of course, was of enormous help to Obama in his 2008 campaign. Union members knocked on doors in key swing states, sent out millions of pieces of direct mail and made millions of phone calls on Obama's behalf.
Also urging aggressive steps is an alliance of liberal organizations, including Latino, gay and women's rights advocates. They sent a letter to Obama on Tuesday telling him that "history – and proven economics – tells us that any plan to solve our jobs crisis needs to be big, bold, and create jobs directly."
The writers cautioned Obama not to come up with a plan aimed at appeasing Republicans.
"A problem this serious needs a plan to match it in scope," they wrote. "Tax cuts and incentives for corporations have repeatedly failed to put Americans back to work. It is time to move beyond these half measures designed to appeal to a narrow ideological minority who have repeatedly shown their unwillingness to negotiate and their disinterest in real solutions."
The base may be in for a disappointment. In an interview last week, Vice President Joe Biden suggested that the "yes we can" spirit is dormant for the time being.
"I think the economy does need more stimulus, but you know how hard it was even when we had the majorities," he said.