Crafting the White House jobs agenda

At a White House event yesterday, President Obama noted his speech next week on job creation, in which he’ll lay out “a series of steps that Congress can take immediately” that would “help to grow this economy.” Without going into any details, the president added, “These are bipartisan ideas that ought to be the kind of proposals that everybody can get behind, no matter what your political affiliation might be. So my hope and expectation is that we can put country before party and get something done for the American people.”

So, what’s in the plan? At this point, there really isn’t one — the Washington Post reports that officials are still scrambling to finalize “a new jobs initiative.” An internal debate continues, apparently, over whether the White House will pursue “narrower ideas with a realistic chance of passing the Republican-led House or more sweeping stimulus proposals that would excite his liberal base and draw contrasts with the GOP.”

The smarter course seems obvious to me, but while the debate continues, we’re at least getting a sense of what’s on the table.

According to administration officials and others familiar with the matter, Obama is considering a tax cut that would directly reward companies for hiring new workers, new spending for environmentally friendly construction and for rehabilitating schools, and clean-energy tax cuts.

He is also developing programs to target long-term unemployment, potentially including a version of a Georgia unemployment insurance program that pays employers to hire workers who have been unemployed and provides funding for training.

At the same time, Obama may announce new programs to lift the housing market, such as a refinancing initiative that could pump tens of billions of dollars into the economy.

Obama also is likely to renew calls for renewing — and potentially expanding — ongoing efforts, such as a two-percentage-point cut in the payroll tax.

While these provisions come together, the encouraging news is that the administration is at least pointing in the right direction. The discussion in the West Wing isn’t how best to cut the deficit; the discussion is over how ambitious to be when proposing a job creation/economic growth agenda. We’ll learn next week whether the White House came up with the right answers, but for now, I take some comfort in knowing they’re asking the right questions.

That said, as the internal deliberations continue, I hope officials will take Eugene Robinson’s suggestion to heart: “President Obama’s promised jobs plan needs to be unrealistic and unreasonable, at the very least. If he can crank it all the way up to unimaginable, that would be even better…. It is hard to overstate how apprehensive most Americans are about the future. Boldness from the president may or may not get the nation’s mojo working again. Timidity surely won’t.”

Obviously, we know Republicans will say what they always say: “No jobs, no way.” But if this realization leads the White House to aim lower, in the hopes that maybe the GOP would be more conciliatory, recent history tells us what a mistake this would be.

It’s far better for the president to be bold, present popular ideas that would work, give the public a plan to rally around, and make it clear to the nation exactly where both sides stand. If the right is going to reject every idea anyway, there’s no reason for Obama to settle for a weak plan from the outset.