President Obama speaks to reporters at a news conference in the East Room… (Susan Walsh, Associated…)
Reporting from Washington — President Obama warned Republicans of a protracted political showdown if they don't approve his $447-billion jobs plan, promising to bring it up piece by piece and force votes on popular provisions between now and the 2012 election.
The president said his jobs act was a bona fide proposal, not a campaign strategy — although he made clear that in his reelection drive he would remind voters of the GOP's efforts to block him. In a news conference Thursday, Obama took a cue from the history books as he seeks to defy conventional political wisdom and win a second term despite high unemployment and a struggling economy.
Obama looked to the presidency of Harry S. Truman, who castigated opponents of his Fair Deal agenda as part of a "do-nothing Congress" during the 1948 campaign. Obama said Congress could easily avoid such a characterization by taking action.
"If Congress does something," he said, "then I can't run against a do-nothing Congress."
If the GOP rejects his jobs package in its entirety, Obama promised to compel Republicans to vote on pieces of the bill, intended to force lawmakers to take a stand on proposals that appeal to voters, such as lower payroll taxes and money to spur hiring and rebuild public infrastructure.
But Republicans also can play the populist game, by virtue of controlling the House. The GOP blueprint for economic recovery relies on cuts in taxes and spending, along with a rollback of some federal regulations. Centrist Democrats and those representing swing districts might be reluctant to vote against such measures.
Running against Congress' record also carries risk for Obama. In some cases, Congress has done exactly what the president asked.
Over the summer, the president demanded that lawmakers pass his patent reform bill, a highway construction bill, a bill to fund the Federal Aviation Administration and three pending trade deals. Lawmakers passed the first three and might have approved the trade pacts by now, except that the White House didn't send them to Congress until this week.
In the last two weeks, the House has passed three measures that Republicans said would help business and create jobs. The bills would delay pollution controls on coal-fired power plants, cement kilns and industrial boilers.
"House-passed jobs bills are piling up in the Senate by the day," said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). "If the president is concerned about inaction, he should set his sights on the Democrat-run Senate."
Republicans also may seek to gain traction by focusing on the tax increases being pushed to pay for Obama's plan, as Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky did by singling out a proposal from Democratic senators to impose a 5.6% surtax on earners making more than $1 million a year.
McConnell on Thursday called the idea an "unwise tax hike" that Republicans would not support.
"This bill is the same wasteful spending, the same burdensome union giveaways, and the same temporary tax policy that has failed the American people the last two years," McConnell said.
Obama used the news conference to keep his jobs bill in the public eye, summoning the national news media on short notice to reiterate his message and pressure opponents — aware that while polls show public dissatisfaction with Washington overall, Congress' approval ratings remain far weaker than his own.
Obama took a hard shot at McConnell, characterizing the Kentucky senator's approach as entirely partisan. Obama said it was impossible to decouple McConnell's opposition to the White House agenda from the Republican leader's assertion that his top political priority was to defeat Obama in 2012.
Appearing in the East Room of the White House, Obama sought to inject fresh urgency into the debate as he spoke of the "emergency" facing the country and of the risk of the European debt crisis affecting the U.S. economy.
"The problems Europe is having today could have a very real effect on our economy at a time when it's already fragile," Obama said. "But this jobs bill can help guard against another downturn if the situation in Europe gets any worse. It will boost economic growth; it will put people back to work."
One independent economist agreed that Congress should move quickly to pass at least some portion of the plan. Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, said lawmakers should heed Obama's call to extend and increase the payroll tax cut that is set to expire at the end of the year.
"Even if Europe hangs together reasonably well, we're going to need that, given our own problems and given the damage that Europe has already done to the global economy," Zandi said.
Zandi published an analysis last month that asserted Obama's jobs plan would help avert another recession, add 2 percentage points to the nation's total economic output and cut unemployment by a full percentage point from its current rate of 9.1%. A new jobs report covering September is due out Friday.