White House ponders next step on economy

A few days ago, the Washington Post noted that the White House’s allies have been pressuring the West Wing to get far more ambitious when it comes to the economic debate. The article noted the President Obama’s aides generally respond that he feels “a responsibility to explore policies that have a chance of passage, rather than merely making a political statement.”

For good or ill, this is consistent with the president’s m.o. — he doesn’t like picking fights he expects to lose. Obama could immediately launch a bold and ambitious economic agenda, which would have real merit and garner considerable support from the left, but he won’t, not because he’s a secret conservative, but because he’s generally unwilling to invest energy in a plan that can’t pass, regardless of the ancillary political benefits.

Of course, choosing a more cautious approach carries its own costs, and forfeits an opportunity to draw stark contrasts with far-right Republicans, who are (a) wildly unpopular; and (b) chiefly responsible for blocking any hope at economic progress.

All of this, apparently, has led to an internal White House debate.

As the economy worsens, President Obama and his senior aides are considering whether to adopt a more combative approach on economic issues, seeking to highlight substantive differences with Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail rather than continuing to pursue elusive compromises, advisers to the president say.

Mr. Obama’s senior adviser, David Plouffe, and his chief of staff, William M. Daley, want him to maintain a pragmatic strategy of appealing to independent voters by advocating ideas that can pass Congress, even if they may not have much economic impact. These include free trade agreements and improved patent protections for inventors.

But others, including Gene Sperling, Mr. Obama’s chief economic adviser, say public anger over the debt ceiling debate has weakened Republicans and created an opening for bigger ideas like tax incentives for businesses that hire more workers, according to Congressional Democrats who share that view. Democrats are also pushing the White House to help homeowners facing foreclosure.

Even if the ideas cannot pass Congress, they say, the president would gain a campaign issue by pushing for them.

The article notes that White House officials are aware of the economics, but can’t overcome the politics: another round of stimulus would make a positive difference, but it would fail miserably in Congress and most voters strongly disapprove of the idea anyway, merit notwithstanding.

So what are we left with? An agenda with (a) modest ideas that might make a modest difference if they can overcome Republican opposition; and (b) an eye on deficit reduction, which polls suggest would be popular, even if it offers no tangible benefits at all in the areas of job creation and economic growth.

Were Republicans less ridiculous, and had the midterms gone the other way, the White House would prefer a stronger policy. But the combination of GOP radicalism and voters’ misjudgment has left West Wing officials thinking that they have limited options.

For what it’s worth, I’m not unsympathetic to the hurdles, nor am I blind to the fact that Republicans can and will block any idea with merit. I can also appreciate why the president seems reflexively reluctant to deliberately fight a losing battle — no one wants to look inept on the issue that matters more.

But if it were up to me, I’d go big anyway and start pushing a meaningful economic agenda. Will the GOP kill bold ideas? Of course they will. But having the debate positions Obama as the leader with the right vision, who cares about getting Americans back to work. Picking the fight offers a chance to blame the do-nothing Congress and make Republicans the opponents of a real jobs agenda, dragging down the GOP brand even further in advance of 2012. All the while, there’s value in giving progressives something to fight for.

Tangible results are obviously more important than rhetoric, plans, and speeches — voters want jobs, not more talk about jobs — but Republicans won’t allow real progress anyway. The more Obama can make them own the results, while positioning himself as the leader fighting the good fight, the better off he’ll be politically.

So don’t lay down a bunt and hope to maybe get on base; swing for the damn fences.