Changing the nature of the conversation

Two of the more significant political developments on Capitol Hill yesterday dealt with a similar subject. In the afternoon, Senate Republicans unveiled a pseudo jobs bill, and a few hours later, Speaker Boehner got into an argument with President Obama over whether GOP officials actually care about creating jobs.

It prompted Josh Marshall to raise a good point.

I don’t suggest that the president’s political fortunes have shifted dramatically. Yet despite the fact that Senate Republicans were able to block a vote on his jobs bill, it seems to have gone with relatively little notice — probably because it’s right there in plain sight — how much the president’s day in and day out push on jobs has simply shifted the national conversation, the focus on what the issue is that requires solving.

I think this is a bigger deal than we realize.

At a certain level, this may seem counter-intuitive. After all, President Obama launched an aggressive, all-encompassing push on jobs shortly after Labor Day, and surface-level conditions haven’t changed that much in the six weeks since — the president’s approval ratings are still in the low 40s; Republicans still don’t want to make the economy better; public anxiety still reigns. Early September looks an awful lot like mid October.

But I think Josh is right about the larger conversation. For the better part of 2011, the battle lines were drawn in a way that Republicans loved. The only topics of conversation that were permitted dealt with debt reduction, entitlement “reforms,” spending cuts, and austerity. The question wasn’t whether Washington would impose pain on an already-suffering populace, but how much.

The discourse is now a very different place, because the White House had the sense to take a conversational detour. Thanks in part to a concerted p.r. campaign from President Obama, and with some pushes from Occupy Wall Street, the topics that now dominate are about job creation, financial industry responsibility, and tax fairness. What’s more, while the president’s approval rating hasn’t changed much, polls do show a striking shift in Obama’s direction when it comes to who voters trust to lower unemployment: “Obama has made big gains over Republicans on the specific question of who is more trusted to handle jobs. Obama has a 15 point edge on the issue, 49-34, up from a tie of 40-40 in early September.”

Clearly (and tragically) the policy needle isn’t moving, at least not yet, but the austerity agenda is no longer at center stage, in large part because the president put the power of the White House into pushing it out of the spotlight. It’s a start.