Talking about jobs, creating jobs

At the White House press conference this morning, President Obama seemed to acknowledge the perception that there’s just nothing more policymakers can do to create jobs. He didn’t talk up a new stimulus, of course, but the president pushed the line at the outset that there are plenty of worthwhile options.

“Today, our administration is trying to take those steps, so we’re reviewing government regulations so that we can fix any rules in place that are an unnecessary burden on businesses. We’re working with the private sector to get small businesses and start-ups the financing they need to grow and expand. And because of the partnership that we’ve launched with businesses and community colleges, 500,000 workers will be able to receive the right skills and training for manufacturing jobs in companies all across America — jobs that companies are looking to fill.

“In addition to the steps that my administration can take on our own, there are also things that Congress could do right now that will help create good jobs. Right now, Congress can send me a bill that would make it easier for entrepreneurs to patent a new product or idea — because we can’t give innovators in other countries a big leg up when it comes to opening new businesses and creating new jobs. That’s something Congress could do right now.

“Right now, Congress could send me a bill that puts construction workers back on the job rebuilding roads and bridges — not by having government fund and pick every project, but by providing loans to private companies and states and local governments on the basis of merit and not politics. That’s pending in Congress right now.”

The president went on to emphasize some related points on trade and taxes, but kept using the phrase — “right now” — probably to reinforce the idea that Obama wants immediate improvements to the job market.

To this extent, the president seemed to be following the advice of Ron Klain, Vice President Biden’s former chief of staff, who urged White House officials to be more rhetorically proactive on this front. “It may not succeed,” Klain wrote, “but [the administration] must get ‘caught trying’ to do more to spur job creation.”

Ezra Klein has a smart piece on this, explaining that Klain’s advice, while compelling, runs into practical problems. Specifically, whenever the president talks up a job-creating policy, Republicans reflexively announce their opposition to that policy, even if they support it. What Obama needs to do, then, is to support effective job-creating policies and do so in a way maximizes their chances of success.

A lot of observers wondered why the Obama administration didn’t push a payroll-tax cut in the 2010 elections. The reason, insiders said, was simple, if frustrating: If they did that, the Republican Party would publicly oppose it and they wouldn’t be able to pass it after the election. By staying quiet on the payroll-tax cut, they made it possible for Republicans to support it as part of the 2010 tax deal.

Recently, the Obama administration has been pushing an expansion of the payroll-tax cut. They want to extend it to employers, not just employees. But they’ve been more public about it. And sure enough, the GOP is suddenly finding itself opposed to a tax cut on business — man, polarization is a powerful force — and gripped by a sudden and, one imagines, soon-to-be-abandoned belief that tax cuts should be paid for.

All of which suggests that if any further jobs measures are going to pass, they’re going to have to start in backroom negotiations and only go public as part of a deal. Taking them public first in the hopes that you can then get them as part of backroom negotiations won’t work. So though I agree with Klain that the right political move for Obama is to push harder on jobs, if I were advising the president, I’d tell him to keep any policies that his legislative team thinks could actually pass out of his speeches. Because the right politics, in the end, won’t do him much good in November. The right jobs numbers will.

That sounds right to me.