When a president asks for a prime-time slot to address a joint session of Congress, he is signaling to the country that he has something very important to say. Next Thursday President Obama will once again try to make a hard political pivot to the issue of jobs.
Obama will confront two big problems when he stands in the well of the House next week. The first is political: the loss of voters' confidence in his handling of the economy. The second is the economy itself. A new estimate released by the White House on Thursday shows the economy growing at an anemic 1.7 percent and unemployment staying at 9 percent in 2012.
"He has to push forward a plausible, credible jobs package that will target that rate and start to finally bring it down," says Jared Bernstein, the former top economist for Vice President Joe Biden.
Obama previewed the speech Monday, saying he would be "laying out a series of steps that Congress can take immediately to put more money in the pockets of working families and middle-class families, to make it easier for small businesses to hire people, to put construction crews to work rebuilding our nation's roads and railways and airports, and all the other measures that can help to grow this economy."
Possible 'Opening Gun' In 2012 Race
The president's jobs package will almost certainly include measures for payroll tax relief, business tax credits for hiring and infrastructure projects. Bill Galston, a former aide to former President Clinton, says he thinks the president needs to go even bigger and lay out a growth agenda that includes a solution to the mortgage debt crisis and a long-term vision for fundamental tax reform.
"By going big, he will do what he really hasn't done so far in 2011, and that is plant a flag and invite the people to rally around it," he says. "If you look at the speech that way, it really is the opening gun in the 2012 presidential campaign."
The president would, in effect, be telling Americans what he would do if he had a second term.
What his Democratic supporters desperately hope he does not do is lay out an agenda designed to win Republican support. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is one of Obama's liberal supporters who thinks the president has been too fixated on bipartisanship and finding the magic set of policies that will appeal to Republicans in Congress.
"I said to him, 'Do not look at what is possible. Look at what is necessary, and just because you think it's the only thing that's politically possible, that doesn't mean you should propose that,'" Trumka says. "If you only propose what you think they will accept, they control the agenda."
At this point, Republicans don't even seem open to proposals they once supported, like an extension of the payroll tax cut. Galston says it's time for the president to give up on his quest for economic solutions that are agreeable to both parties.
"Given where the energy is within today's Republican Party, the prospects of an agreement that is significant are almost zero," Galston says, "which means that the president not only has no choice but to state his own position clearly and in unvarnished terms, but also that he can only gain from that."
Obama can only "gain," Galston says, because he's in such a deep hole. The number of people who view him as a strong leader has plummeted over the last two months.
What He's Fighting For
Galston and other Democrats think the only way out of that hole is to propose a bold plan and fight for it — even if it has no chance of passing Congress.
"If he has to choose between rebuilding his reputation as a strong leader and ticking off a menu of relatively modest legislative successes, I think that he would be well advised to pursue the former even at the expense of the latter," Galston says, "because right now, even his friends are wondering what he stands for and what he's prepared to fight for, and if even your friends aren't sure, then you can bet that the people who are in the middle — the Independents and moderates who will decide the election — aren't sure either."
Ensuring the American people know what he's fighting for is really the biggest task for the president next week and in the weeks after the speech, Bernstein says, as the president campaigns for his plan against Republican opposition.
"He will regain his footing precisely by doing just that, and I think that's where he's pivoting. This president can be extremely effective when he fights for what it is that people care most about in their economic lives: their living standards, their paychecks, the quality of their schools," Bernstein says. "He lost his footing, he got distracted. He got sucked into a very destructive, self-inflicted, wounding debt-ceiling debate, and that's behind him now."
The debt ceiling debate — where the president emerged looking weak and Washington utterly dysfunctional — is over, but the political damage it did hasn't gone away. Thursday's speech maybe one of Obama's last big opportunities to reverse it.