The Choice: Questionable Something vs Nothing-Nothing

Good morning! I’m happy to be given the keys to the stately vessel that is the Political Animal. I hope no one gets hurt. Speaking of hurting, we should probably keep on talking about the depressing jobs report and what it means for Obama’s reelection hopes.

Noam Scheiber gets some feedback from the administration on his claim that the current jobs mess is at least partially Obama’s responsibility because he decided against prioritizing more and bigger stimulus when such a bill still had a chance to make it to his desk:

An administration official writes to ask why I make no mention of the American Jobs Act, the $450 billion-ish stimulus package the president proposed last September.

I think the legislation, which would include another big cut in the payroll tax, extra spending on infrastructure, state aid for paying teachers, cops, and firefighters, and additional unemployment relief, among other good ideas, is absolutely essential. But I’d make two points in response. Substantively, the time to propose such a package was the spring of 2010, when Democrats still controlled the House, had close to a filibuster proof majority in the Senate, and the economy was giving off the first hints of a relapse. (I elaborate on this in my book.) By late 2011, the AJA was still a good idea, but it had virtually no chance of passage, which the White House understood as well as anyone.

Politically, on the other hand, it’s still worth flogging the AJA aggressively. As my former colleague Jonathan Chait has pointed out, the worst of all worlds for the administration is for Republicans to block additional stimulus without taking any blame for it. If you’re Obama, you have to get at least one victory there–either the stimulus itself, or an issue with which to bash the GOP. The administration finally grasped this last September, after two-and-half years of mostly giving the GOP a pass. But the focus on stimulus has largely given way in recent months to a combination of attacks on Romney’s private equity career along with efforts to tout the Obama record (which is not too shabby, I’d be the first to concede, middling recovery aside). If the only thing the administration does in response to these latest jobs numbers is revive it’s focus on the American Jobs Act, it would be a politically important turning point, though obviously you’d like to get the actual stimulus, too.

Obviously, the White House has no choice but to put forward some kind of positive jobs/stimulus agenda, if only to say that Romney and his Republican allies have been responsible for blocking legislation that could have partially alleviated the dismal employment picture.

But there’s a substantive and political risk to prioritizing just doing something. If the argument that Obama wants to make is that Romney has no real plan to bring down the unemployment rate or stimulate the economy in the short-term, that’s all well and good. However, it wouldn’t be totally ridiculous for an undecided voter who is only focused on short-term economic performance to see four more years of gridlock with Obama and thus nothing getting done and instead prefer Romney and the chance of doing something with an agreeable Republican Congress.

This is just another way of saying that a bleak macroeconomic picture will make the campaign incredibly difficult for the president.