President Obama's speech about jobs last week was a step forward. But we need to do better. We need to do better on policy, and better on politics.
Here's what that means:
On policy, Obama's jobs proposal is a lot like his administration's health care reform.
If passed, the act would provide some measure of relief for Americans who desperately need it. The fact that it extends unemployment insurance and could create as many as 1.9 million jobs in 2012, according to Mark Zandi at Moody's Analytics, is something that we should not take lightly, even if we think that the plan does not go far enough. The president was right when he noted that too many people “are living week to week, paycheck to paycheck, even day to day. They need help and they need it now.” Just as the health care bill was certainly imperfect, but nevertheless allowed tens of thousands who were previously excluded to gain health care coverage, the administration's jobs act does offer some short-term relief.
Unfortunately, its gains will hardly be enough to offset the damage done to the pubic sector in recent years. With hiring in the private sector barely limping forward, the government is an absolutely critical employer. Yet, the administration has been complicit in accepting a framework of austerity and agreeing to cut back essential public services. Doing better on jobs will require a robust defense of government and President Obama has yet to provide this.
In terms of the private sector, we must recognize that providing tax incentives for businesses will not be enough. We've known for decades that creating favorable terms for business to invest does not translate into job creation in the absence of policy mechanisms that require it. Unless we explicitly mandate that businesses produce new jobs – and good jobs – as a condition of receiving public support, the record shows that they will not create the employment we need. This is not the time to hand out public money with no accountability. Tax breaks and other incentives should be tied to measurable job creation, because without real accountability, the relief offered by the job act will be all too fleeting.
Even more than policy, we need to do better in terms of politics. And this is where the Obama administration's proposal really fails.
It fails because it does not contain enough of substance to excite the Democratic base, yet it will still be ardently opposed by the Republicans. Given the extraordinarily obstructionist track record of the conservatives in Congress, we can expect them to fight anything that Democrats put on the table. Therefore, overtures designed to bring them in are pointless. Putting forward a bold, progressive program at least allows us to set the framework for debate. It forces them to debate on our terms and makes them have to explain to the American people why they are opposing policies that would be substantive solutions to our economic problems. In contrast, proposals filled with pre-emptive concessions do little to reframe the debate and they do nothing to compel the electoral coalition that put Obama in office to feel energized and invested in supporting the White House jobs drive.
Moving forward, however, not everything is up to the White House. Progressives are right to be dissatisfied, yet we, too, must do better on politics. We have to be prepared to build a movement – not just have an internal debate in Washington about what's good or bad about the president's actions. This means relearning how to do the inside-outside dance with an elected leader. Electing better insiders, while also turning up the heat from the outside, requires doing more than lambasting the president for his failures. We must create the political space and the political will among lawmakers to push better solutions.
The need for us to create outside pressure is not unique to Obama and it is not a function of our judgment about his moral compass or political aptitude. It is always a crucial part of the equation for creating political change in America. Unless politicians feel legitimate pressure to do otherwise, they will always engage in a lowest-common-denominator game of legislative policy making, with self-preservation as its center of gravity. Our job is to compel them to pursue solutions more ambitious than they would be inclined to take up otherwise.
As we work to advance real job-creation measures, we must make the stakes of this debate clear. The Democrats have yet to hold the Republicans accountable for what they are really doing: If they are not putting forward policies which allow those who work hard and play by the rules to be rewarded, conservatives are tearing at the civic fabric of our nation. They are destroying any sense of enfranchisement that Americans have in this country.
They cannot be allowed to do this without a fight. We must do better.