It is sometimes said – most recently by the Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid — that Barack Obama needs to be more confrontational with the Republicans (and particularly filibuster-happy Senate Republicans) determined to thwart his congressional agenda. When it comes to the fierce fight over unemployment insurance extensions, Obama seems to be taking the advice to heart. In a Rose Garden appearance today, the president ripped the GOP for its weeks-long roadblock of Democratic efforts to extend UI payments for millions of unemployed Americans whose checks are running out. Calling passage of the $30 billion bill “essential,” Obama bashed Republicans for a “lack of faith” in the American people and coddling the rich at the expense of the unemployed. (This was a follow-up punch to Obama’s Saturday weekly radio address, a speech which, as the White House web site proudly says, “blasts” the GOP.)
To some degree, however, Obama’s outrage must be calculated. Yes, the administration is genuinely angry over the GOP’s resistance to helping out struggling workers and pumping more cash into the wheezing economy. (See my cover story in the new issue for much more on that.) But Obama knows that he’s already won this fight already. West Virginia has now appointed a new Democratic senator to replace the late Robert C. Byrd, meaning Democrats almost surely have the 60 votes they’ll need when the issue comes to a vote tomorrow. Obama’s comments today, then, seemed less about moving public opinion than about highlighting a battle in which he’s about to claim victory–and perhaps in showing his congressional allies and liberal supporters that he’s bringing the fight to Republicans as a perilous midterm election approaches.
At the same time, it’s also clear that the White House is sensitive to Republican talking points about the jobless benefits. Conservatives have made their case against extending benefits in two main grounds: first, concern about the budget deficit (Republicans insist on offsetting budget cuts for any benefits extension); and, second, the notion that long-term UI benefits can become a welfare-like disincentive for jobless people to seek work. On the first score, Obama notes that Republicans care far less about the deficit when it comes to big tax cuts, a way of shifting the topic from the deficit to a GOP budget idea that polls far less well than Republican talk about budget-cutting. “The same people who didn’t have any problem spending hundreds of billions of dollars on tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans [when they were in the majority] are now saying we shouldn’t offer relief to middle-class Americans… who really need help,” Obama said.
Obama was especially sensitive to the latter point–that sending checks to the unemployed could lull them into giving up their job hunts. Joining him for his remarks were three long-term unemployed people who are still ardently job seeking–including one man, a former Honda dealership parts manager, who Obama said has resorted to going door-to-door in his job quest. “These leaders in the Senate who are advancing a misguided notion that emergency relief somehow discourages people from looking for a job should talk to these folks,” Obama complained. “They’re not looking for a handout. They desperately want to work. Just right now they can’t find a job.”
The Republican House leader John Boehner has fired back at Obama with a statement accusing him of “disingenuous attacks, not answers.” But he also conceded that the bill is likely to pass. It looks as though unemployment insurance battle is all over but the shouting, which is sure to carry on into November. But the larger struggle to repair the U.S. economy and rescue the millions of stricken American lives grinds on.