Give them something to fight for

It seemed kind of corny last week when President Obama urged the public to contact lawmakers in support of a debt-reduction compromise, but it turned out to be pretty effective. The response was strong enough to crash Capitol Hill phone lines and web servers — twice — and by many accounts, most of those weighing in supported the Democratic approach.

It was a reminder that there’s a sizable number of Americans who care about preventing an economic disaster, and will act when asked. The White House apparently hopes these same folks will be active over the congressional recess.

Facing re-election 15 months from now and with unemployment stubbornly high, Mr. Obama called on Congress to extend unemployment-insurance benefits and a payroll-tax credit for employees. He also urged lawmakers to approve a patent overhaul, free-trade deals and an infrastructure-funding bank.

“There’s no reason for Congress not to send me those bills so I can sign them into law right away, as soon as they get back from recess,” Mr. Obama said. “It shouldn’t take the risk of default, the risk of economic catastrophe, to get folks in this town to work together and do their jobs.”

The White House hopes lawmakers will return to Washington in early September having heard an earful from voters about jobs and the economy. Democrats see potential for bipartisan support on the measures, but they could face stiff opposition from congressional Republicans worried about government spending.

I’m not an expert on grassroots activism, but hoping lawmakers get an “earful” doesn’t seem like quite enough to me. After all, even if Republicans are bombarded every day and at every public event to focus on job creation, they’ll simply respond, “We’re all about creating jobs through austerity and deficit reduction.” The point is, everyone says they’ll push for more jobs, even when they’re touting an agenda that will do the opposite.

It’s encouraging that the White House sees the public as a force that can shift the debate, but it seems to me this would be more effective if the public has something specific to fight for, rather than giving members a generic “earful.”

Why not craft a jobs bill, right now, and urge voters to push for its passage? There’s no need to start from scratch since officials could package the ideas that are being bandied about — payroll tax extension, unemployment benefits, infrastructure, etc. The pitch could emphasize the fact that these have all traditionally been bipartisan ideas and priorities; give it a name like the Invest in America Act (or preferably something with a catchier acronym); and start a p.r. offensive.

Republicans will, of course, condemn the Invest in America Act, because that’s what Republicans do. But why not have the debate? President Obama can take the lead in creating jobs, pushing a targeted plan with popular ideas, fighting a GOP-led Congress that doesn’t seem to care about the economy.

Engaged voters can go to town-hall meetings and express their support for something specific, instead of just “more jobs.”