Obama Goes Big With a New Stimulus Plan, but the Political Circus Persists

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A few minutes into his address to a joint session of Congress on Thursday night, President Obama posed what sounded like a modest challenge to the U.S. Congress: “The question is whether, in the face of an ongoing national crisis, we can stop the political circus and actually do something to help the economy.”

But in the chamber around him, the circus endured. The Democratic side erupted in applause, with many rising to their feet, while the Republican side sat still, most of its members stone-faced with hands in their laps. This is how it is these days, and how it most surely will be for most of the next 14 months: Even the most basic call for common purpose will be rebuffed as political poison. While the country suffers, and the suffering increases, everything in Washington is political posturing. The circus is all consuming.

When Obama called for Republicans to “put our teachers back in the classroom where they belong,” there was no response from the GOP side of the aisle. When Obama pointed out that Republicans had once supported many of the proposals he was putting forward, Sen. John McCain was the only Republican who bothered a seated golf clap. When Obama said that his new stimulus plan would be a boon for “job creators,” a favorite phrase of Republicans in Congress, crickets from the Grand Old Party.

On the whole, Republicans in the chamber treated the event as the political trap that Obama intended it to be, an attempt to strong arm them before a national primetime audience into supporting policies they despise. The bill Obama proposed, called the American Jobs Act, was a $447 billion program to stimulate the economy, with almost all of the spending coming over the next year. The plan pairs broad-based payroll tax cuts and hiring incentives with funding for teachers, police and fireman and major construction projects. In scale, it looks a lot like the 2009 stimulus bill, which had spent $787 billion over slightly more than two years, though there were some concessions in substance. The President’s proposal depended much more heavily on tax cuts, which Republicans have traditionally supported in the past. Obama also promised to offer ways to pay for the new spending with other program cuts, though he offered no specifics.

But the Republicans of the past are not the Republicans of today. The idea of government stimulus with deficit spending, a mainstay of the George W. Bush administration, which passed several such bills, has become anathema to the current GOP, which regularly peddles the falsehood that short-term government spending and tax cuts has no short-term impact on economic growth and job creation. This is the platform on which Republicans now feel poised to retake the White House in 2012. And they feel emboldened.

The President, after all, is the weakest he has ever been in office, lacking the power to improve the economy on his own and losing the respect of the American people as a capable leader. His strategy to recapture his lost standing depends on setting up an argument that he can win, even if Republicans block all or most of his proposals to get the economy growing again. He needed to establish the line on which he will fight. In the span of just a few minutes, he called on Republicans to “pass” his plan more than a dozen times.

But it will never pass, and that brings Obama to his next step. “You should pass it,” Obama said later in his speech Thursday night. “I intend to take that message to every corner of this country.” This political pressure, Obama calculates, will force Republicans to the negotiating table. Republicans have already signaled that they are willing to cut some deal to help stimulate the economy, though the outlines of the compromise are unclear.

And so we are left with the circus for the foreseeable future—a President calling the country to rise above politics even as he plays it and a loyal opposition that maneuvers for the next election. Both sides will play to the American people, who have made perfectly clear that they are sick and tired of being played to by both sides.

“So let’s meet the moment,” Obama told the jaded chamber, at the end of the talk. “Let’s get to work.” Neither is likely. If the country is lucky, it can only hope to muddle through.