Washington – Don't fall for it. There's no “new tone” coming from the Republican-controlled House. It's just a remix of the same old song.
Anyone who watched President Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress last week could have guessed that the GOP reaction would be muted. You could scan the chamber and read the contrasting facial expressions: Democrats tended to have wide eyes and broad smiles, while many Republicans winced as if suffering indigestion.
It isn't just that Obama made a forceful and compelling case for his $447 billion American Jobs Act. It's also that while Republicans succeeded in damaging the president's political standing with their debt-ceiling brinkmanship, they did more violence to their own. According to Gallup, the approval rating for Congress is down to a pathetic 13 percent.
Moreover, worrisome new data have led even conservative economists to join the chorus for injecting some kind of new stimulus, and quickly, before we slump back into recession. The president didn't utter the word “stimulus” Thursday night — apparently it's unsuitable for polite company — but according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the first Obama stimulus saved or created up to 3.6 million jobs and may have shaved a full two percentage points off the unemployment rate.
So the initial reaction from Republicans sounded almost conciliatory. “We believe creating long-term, sustainable jobs must be the top priority for elected leaders of both parties, and it is our desire to work with you to find common ground,” Speaker John Boehner and his House leadership team wrote in a letter to Obama. “While we have a different vision … we believe your ideas merit consideration by the Congress.”
Sounds great. But from all evidence, not a word is true.
The Republican Party clearly has three priorities that outrank job creation: defeating President Obama, cutting taxes and reducing the size of government. The party's “desire … to find common ground” is nonexistent, as shown by its refusal, during the debt-ceiling fight, to accept a deal offering three dollars in spending cuts for every dollar of new revenue. GOP presidential candidates, who will be setting the party's political tone, have pledged to reject even an 10-to-1 deal.
Even the part about having a different vision is untrue, since the American Jobs Act consists mostly of GOP-friendly tax cuts. A more forthright response would have been: “Mr. President, we'll get back to you once we come up with some new ways to reject ideas that we've supported in the past.”
It was encouraging to see Obama keep the pressure on by following his speech with a visit to the University of Richmond, which happens to be in the district represented by Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the president's most nettlesome antagonist in the House. And it was even more encouraging to hear Obama return to one phrase again and again: “Pass this bill.”
He told the Richmond crowd, “If you want construction workers on the worksite, pass this bill. If you want teachers in the classroom, pass this bill. If you want small-business owners to hire new people, pass this bill.” OK, there might be a smidge of hyperbole there, but the important thing is that he said “this” bill, not some other bill.
The GOP's next move is entirely predictable: chop the American Jobs Act into little pieces, revise the parts they like to make them more consistent with ultra-conservative values, pass those elements and reject the rest as not being “common ground.” We've seen this movie before.
A senior White House official told me last week that this time is different. The official said Obama will continue to push for the whole enchilada — the tax cuts, the infrastructure bank, the targeted assistance for veteran and teachers, all of it. Such resolve, if Obama follows through, is music to the Democratic base and good news for the economy.
The president has vowed to take his case to the American people, following up his stop in Cantor's Virginia district with visits this week to Ohio — Boehner's home state — and North Carolina.
Might it be pure coincidence that there is an election in 14 months, or that Virginia, Ohio and North Carolina happen to be “purple” states Obama won in 2008 and hopes to capture again next year?
Of course not. After all, another way to describe a swing state is “common ground.”