Obama Versus the Strawmen

The president’s poll numbers are in the doldrums, and they will likely get a modest boost from his speech tonight to a joint session of Congress, announcing the American Jobs Act. But to preserve his job next November, which has always been job one for the White House, the president will need to create a significant number of new jobs for  the 14 million unemployed and 10 million underemployed Americans  in the next 14 months. Will his new $447 billion program do the trick?

I doubt it. About half of the money in the program announced tonight relates to continuation of existing programs that were due to expire -- the 99 weeks of unemployment insurance, and the 2% payroll tax cut for workers. In other words, they do not represent new money thrown into the economy, but simply not taking money out of it. This is very similar to the extension of the Bush tax cuts passed by the lame duck Congress in December 2010. Clearly that extension, the extension of unemployment benefits that was also passed at that time, and the 2% payroll tax cut that was created at that time have done very little to create new jobs in 2011. Zero jobs were created in August, a pathetic performance for an economy more than two years into the weakest recovery in a century. The reality is that the repeated stimulus efforts have failed on the consumer side because Americans became overleveraged during the housing boom and have used any new cash from temporary tax cut measures or federal spending programs to pay down personal debt.

But there is a second side to the current economic sluggishness. Why are big companies, which have been recording solid profits and accumulating lots of cash, not hiring? That is a question the president addressed tonight through one of his favorite techniques -- by offering as the alternative to his approach a collection of absurd strawman positions suggesting the other side (the Republicans) want the end of government, a position favored by no one other than perhaps a Paul or two:

“Now, I realize that some of you have a different theory on how to grow the economy. Some of you sincerely believe that the only solution to our economic challenges is to simply cut most government spending and eliminate most government regulations.”

The president then laid out the “alternative” -- mentioning all of the following that presumably would never have gotten done if the Republican vision of today had been in vogue years back:

“Ask yourselves -- where would we be right now if the people who sat here before us decided not to build our highways and our bridges; our dams and our airports? What would this country be like if we had chosen not to spend money on public high schools, or research universities, or community colleges? Millions of returning heroes, including my grandfather, had the opportunity to go to school because of the GI Bill. Where would we be if they hadn’t had that chance?

How many jobs would it have cost us if past Congresses decided not to support the basic research that led to the Internet and the computer chip? What kind of country would this be if this Chamber had voted down Social Security or Medicare just because it violated some rigid idea about what government could or could not do? How many Americans would have suffered as a result?”

And there was more:

“I reject the argument that says for the economy to grow, we have to roll back protections that ban hidden fees by credit card companies, or rules that keep our kids from being exposed to mercury, or laws that prevent the health insurance industry from shortchanging patients. I reject the idea that we have to strip away collective bargaining rights to compete in a global economy. We shouldn’t be in a race to the bottom, where we try to offer the cheapest labor and the worst pollution standards.”