There is no secret ‘big economic initiative,’ but there could be

THERE IS NO SECRET ‘BIG ECONOMIC INITIATIVE,’ BUT THERE COULD BE…. The lead New York Times editorial today begins, “If President Obama has a big economic initiative up his sleeve, as he hinted recently, now would be a good time to let the rest of us in on it.”

I agree with the latter half, but I’m not sure White House has hinted about any upcoming economic plan. I’d love to be wrong, but the evidence seems to suggest the president and his team are prepared to move forward with existing policy, coupled with some small-but-worthwhile measures still pending in Congress. The “hint” came on Wednesday, when we learned that Obama and his economic team held a conference call to discuss “the next steps to keep the economy growing,” but a closer look suggested those “next steps” are limited to the existing tax-rate plan and the bill with small-business incentives.

Indeed, Jake Tapper reported Friday that the president’s team believes, under the circumstances, “there aren’t any more major initiatives the administration will push in further attempts to revive the sputtering economy.”

With this in mind, the NYT editorial board has some suggestions for the president to consider.

Mr. Obama … needs to inspire Americans who have been ground down by the economic crisis and Washington’s small-bore sniping. He needs to rally the nation around a big idea — a project that is worth sacrificing for, worth paying for, worth working for. One that lets them know that there is more ahead than just a return to a status quo of lopsided growth in which corporate profits surge while jobs and incomes lag.

That mission could be the “21st century infrastructure,” that Mr. Obama mentioned on a multi-city trip this month, “not just roads and bridges, but faster Internet access and high-speed rail.” It could be energy independence, with high-tech green jobs and a real chance for addressing global warming. Either of the above would make sense, economically and politically.

Mr. Obama and his economic team had clearly hoped for an economic rebound in time for the midterm elections. They are not going to get it. The economic damage they inherited was too deep, and the economic stimulus they pushed through Congress, for all of the fight, was too small. Standing back is not doing the country or his party any good. We believe Americans are ready for hard truths and big ideas.

Substantively, this sounds right to me. But when it comes to messaging, I’d go just a little further.

If the president were to come out tomorrow to announce an ambitious infrastructure/energy/stimulus plan, focused solely on job creation, Republicans would immediately denounce it as fiscally irresponsible — we couldn’t possibly increase the deficit to pay for this, they’d say.

But in many respects, recent developments have strengthened the hand of stimulus proponents, and it’s a dynamic the Obama White House could take advantage of. For one thing, recent polling suggests Americans much prefer investing in job creation to focusing on deficit reduction. I’m suggesting, then, that the president and his party, shortly before the elections, push a popular idea. In theory, that shouldn’t require too much arm-twisting.

For another, literally every member of the House Republican leadership — Minority Leader, Minority Whip, and Conference Chairman — just this month argued publicly that the economy is more important than the deficit, at least right now. They were talking about defending tax cuts for the very wealthiest Americans, but the underlying point was the same — given the fragile state of the economy, growth and jobs matter more than deficit reduction.

So here’s a radical idea: why not call their bluff? If GOP leaders are willing to increase the deficit to improve the economy, the White House can take them up on their offer — but take every penny Republicans want to devote to tax cuts and invest that money in job creation.

It creates an either/or for the political world and voters to consider. Both sides plan to increase the deficit, so that’s no longer the issue. The question is whether it’s better to devote the resources to tax cuts for the very wealthy, or use the same resources on infrastructure, energy, and stimulus.

A jobs agenda vs. a Billionaire Bailout.

I realize that the likelihood of Congress passing anything in this environment is, to put it charitably, remote. If Republicans aren’t willing to let the Senate vote on extended unemployment benefits, and House Republicans were willing to lay off tens of thousands of school teachers, then winning a vote on job creation is almost certainly impossible.

But why not have the fight anyway? Why not force Republicans to fight against a jobs bill two months before the elections? Why not let the public see exactly what both sides want to do to give the economy a boost, and determine which is preferable?

Why not ask voters which they prefer — a jobs agenda or a Billionaire Bailout?