The American Jobs Act is up to the task

When a president delivers a major address to a joint session of Congress, it’s easy to focus, at least first, on the style — the quality of the speech, the spectacle, and the drama. But as the applause fades, what’s left is the underlying policy, which warrants a more sober look.

With this in mind, President Obama presented his American Jobs Act to Congress last night and, to my ear, delivered an excellent speech. But is the plan as good as the address? Fortunately, yes.

Paul Krugman noted in his column that the plan is “significantly bolder and better than I expected,” and would likely “make a significant dent in unemployment” if it were to somehow pass.

There’s only so many details a president is going to share in a speech, but the White House released a fact sheet that sketches out the various measures of the proposal, and how much it would cost. Here’s some of the highlights:

* Payroll tax breaks for workers and employers

* Tax credit for hiring unemployed veterans

* A major aid package to state and local governments, preventing 280,000 public-sector layoffs (teachers, firefighters, police officers)

* Modernizing 35,000 schools (FAST Act)

* Sizable infrastructure investments in roads, rail, airports and waterways

* Extended unemployment benefits and new approaches to unemployment insurance, including work-sharing and “Bridge to Work”

Reports earlier this week that the plan would roughly total $300 billion were wrong, or at a minimum, part of a deliberate effort to lower expectations. According to White House materials, the American Jobs Act is actually a $447 billion economic package.

As Harold Meyerson noted last night, “When word started getting around this afternoon that this new stimulus would be set at $447 billion for the next year — a rate higher than the $787-billion-over-two-years stimulus that Congress enacted in 2009 — leaders of groups representing the Democratic base breathed a sigh of relief. The size and the substance of this new stimulus give Obama and his party the ability not only to rally many of his disenchanted core supporters but to reach out to voters in the middle of the political spectrum.”

We’ll get into the politics — obviously, a good plan that sits on a shelf gathering dust doesn’t much matter — but for now, the White House deserves credit for crafting an ambitious, worthwhile, and effective economic package. Many observers, including me, hoped desperately President Obama and his team would aim high and resist the urge to make preemptive concessions. They did — this is a credible, progressive approach to boosting the economy.

The White House has an incredible challenge ahead, but at least the first step was a bold one.