Gaming out the White House’s jobs agenda

We know President Obama will present a new economic plan in a few weeks, and while we don’t know what’s in it, the early hints offer some encouragement.

But as we consider what’s likely to unfold in the coming months, the optimism about the still-unannounced plan is quickly tempered. Thanks to the midterm elections, public antagonism towards “stimulus” initiatives, and the direction of the larger political winds, it’s seems fair to say the new agenda probably won’t be immediately and warmly received.

Jonathan Bernstein considers whether the president’s upcoming speech will matter at all.

The question on the policy end is whether Congress will adopt the president’s suggestions (not likely, depending on the specifics) and if they were adopted, what difference they would make.

Another key question is this: Is Obama’s speech likely to have a significant impact on public opinion? Political science tells us that presidential speeches don’t have much of an impact. Does that make it a bad idea? No, not really.

Presidential speeches can make modest contributions to agenda-setting, so if there’s a chance that a big speech can change the direction of inside-the-Beltway conversations, then it’s worth a try.

Of course it is.

Let’s unwrap this a bit because few issues matter more right now. On the policy front, while it’s impossible to evaluate a plan that does not yet exist, the early leaks about the plan’s likely provisions suggest they could have a positive impact on unemployment and the economy.

But the policy efficacy won’t matter if Congress kills the bill. So why unveil a jobs agenda Republicans will reflexively reject? Because now is probably a good time to overcome what Paul Krugman called “learned helplessness.”

Krugman argued in May, “As I see it, policy makers are sinking into a condition of learned helplessness on the jobs issue: the more they fail to do anything about the problem, the more they convince themselves that there’s nothing they could do. And those of us who know better should be doing all we can to break that vicious circle.”

Obama, if the reports are accurate, appears ready to help break that vicious circle, even if Republicans won’t accept it.

Look, Democrats can’t just sit around and watch the economy crumble simply because Republicans have slipped into madness. At a minimum, they have to put up a fight and tell voters where the parties stand.

The president is, we can hope, going to present a credible alternative to austerity. If I had to guess, I’d say the public will find its provisions — infrastructure, school construction, tax breaks — pretty popular. Maybe even some of Obama’s detractors on the left will find it acceptable. This could give Dems some leverage going forward.

Before you say, “America needs a solution, not a plan,” I know that. But we can’t even get close to a solution unless the politics start to change very quickly, and a presidential speech can at least begin to change the direction.

What’s unacceptable is throwing up one’s arms in disgust and saying, “Well, Republicans are an American nightmare; those nihilists will kill anything worthwhile; and failure will be humiliating.” This is not only unproductive, it actually helps the GOP by giving them a pass. They won’t have to pay a price for rejecting a popular jobs agenda if Democrats fail to present them with one.

In my naive little dream world, I can at least imagine a healthier dynamic: Obama presents a credible economic plan; voters like it; the left rallies behind it; and Republicans start hearing questions such as, “We see the White House’s jobs plan; where’s yours?” The chilling effect — progressive ideas sit on the shelf for fear of GOP rejection — is overcome and Republicans are forced to start voting against measures Americans care about.

The larger conversation can shift away from the deficit feedback loop and towards a debate on an issue that actually matters.