I’ve stopped pretending that the president’s jobs speech scheduled for next week is going to matter. I’m tired of speculating about what it will contain and whether its proposals will be big or small, bold or timid.
Here is what will actually happen: President Barack Obama will give a speech. It will include a mixture of ideas the administration has pushed for some time (extending the payroll tax cut, investing in infrastructure, passing trade agreements) and some modest new additions (a tax cut for companies that hire new workers, for example). Relatively few people will tune in to the speech; of those who do, most will be either committed Obama supporters or equally committed detractors.
Congressional Republicans will be among those paying attention. The fantasy version of their role can be found in Aaron Sorkin dramas and liberal op-ed columns, in which Obama’s rhetoric stirs the hearts of some while his rallying of the people inspires fear in the others. Republicans then agree to meet with Obama and work out a compromise plan. In some versions of the fantasy, the result is a big compromise that includes deficit reduction and revenue-raising tax reform. At some point in the drama, a weaselly political adviser warns his boss that voting for the deal could cost him his job. “So what?” the boss snarls. “It’s better to be an ex-congressman than an irresponsible congressman.”
A more realistic script, however, has already been written. It takes the form of a news release issued by House Speaker John Boehner’s office on Aug. 17. All you really need to know is the title: “Statement on Announcement of President Obama’s Upcoming Speech on Jobs.”
Consider that for a moment: Where else but Washington would you see a news release responding to an event that hasn’t occurred and statements that haven’t been uttered?
“In the third year of his term,” the news release states, “Americans are still asking President Obama, ‘Where are the Jobs?’ That’s why Republicans, in contrast to the Democrats who run the White House and Senate, have made creating a better environment for job creation our number one focus.” Etc. and so on.
After Boehner actually hears the speech, he’ll be able to use some of its details to hammer it further into the ground. Then he’ll probably point to the House Republicans’ initiative of the week, an assault on “job-killing” regulations, as an alternative to anything Obama proposes. For the record, I’m not much of a fan of job-killing regulations either. But we have 9 percent unemployment because the global financial system collapsed, not because federal inspectors are overly concerned about coal particulates in the air.
Obama’s speech will achieve nothing. It will go nowhere because it has nowhere to go. A speech can rally the base, and maybe even temporarily change the topic in the news. But it can’t change the fundamental fact of politics right now, which is that the two parties disagree on the most profound question in Washington. It’s not: How do we fix the economy? It is: Who should win the next election?
So long as Republicans and Democrats disagree on that, there will be no significant cooperation on substantive issues. Boehner simply will not cut off his party’s candidates at the knees, especially its presidential contenders, by handing Obama a major economic accomplishment. Because he controls the House of Representatives, that means Obama — and, by extension, the U.S. — is not going to get a major economic accomplishment.
Almost everyone in Washington understands this. The interest in the president’s speech is just a function of the fact that people who discuss politics and policy for a living need to seem like we’re doing something through the long summer months. The administration needs to look like it’s acting to create jobs, the media need to appear to be reporting news, the pundits need to generate opinions about it all.
This is the part of the column where, as a pundit, I lay out my three-point, politically implausible plan to turn the situation around. This is where I tell the president to fight harder, or take his message directly to the people, or fire up the lethargic Obama for America organization. This is where I remind the Republicans that they supported tax cuts as stimulus all through the last decade and even into 2009; where I beg them to put country before party; where I warn them that everything they are doing unto the Democrats today will be done unto them tomorrow. This is where I summon history to show how FDR or Reagan or Truman broke a similar logjam.
But such exhortations — and I am guilty of writing variations on these many times over — are pointless today. The facts are what they are. And what they are is depressing and unlikely to change.