As President Obama made his way down the aisle of the House chamber to give his big jobs speech, shaking hands with the men, kissing some of the women, smiling and joking, a grey-haired female congresswoman leaned in. She didn’t give Obama a kiss, but she gave him an exhortation. “Be bold and brave,” she said, loud enough that it was pretty much the only thing anyone said to Obama that I could hear on the TV.
I liked her. I was able to figure out that she is Rep. Lynn Woolsey, a Democrat from the euphonious hometown of Petaluma, Calif. She calls herself the first welfare mother ever elected to Congress. She’s retiring after this term, but she wasn’t retiring last night. As Obama moved past her, she leaned in and said it a second time, even louder. “Be bold and brave.”
This is me writing a feature story when I should be writing a news story:
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I’ve written a couple of pieces discussing whether Obama could really go all FDR on us. They’ve been deeply into on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand territory because I was trying too damn hard to be reasonable. But Woolsey got to me. I wanted Obama to — why the heck not? — be bold and brave.
Was that it? Was that Obama being bold and brave? I guess so. I could’ve lived with bolder and braver but he seemed feistier than I’ve ever seen him. He talked faster than usual. He used a lot of urgent words. He dared the Repubs to go along with his latest stimulus ideas and threatened to take the message to every corner of the country if they don’t.
He kept saying “you should pass it now.” “Right away.” He said “right away” eight times. He probably did that too many times, although he stopped doing it right about the time my wife said he should cut that out. So maybe he knows something.
The speech was simple, although the details will follow in legislative language on Monday. It will be an actual concrete White House legislative proposal which we don’t often get from this White House. I suppose that represents trying to lead from the front.
It will be an extension of payroll tax cuts for workers and small businesses. Plus direct tax breaks to companies that do new hiring. Plus a fairly FDR-ish dollop of direct infrastructure spending to put hardhats to work directly on the federal dime, especially on building and modernizing schools. The one-year cost of the package: $450 billion. As you might have expected, Paul Krugman says it’s a good idea, bolder than he expected out of Obama, but not big enough.
Obama says he will follow soon after with another step, an increase in the small already-scheduled deficit reduction plan that Congress adopted at the end of the hideous debt-ceiling negotiation. I heard Bill O’Reilly complain post-speech that Obama should have put the whole thing on the table and not tease us with important details that are a week and a half away. A fair point, I suppose, but why quibble over a week and a half.
This may not get the attention it deserves, but he signaled that big additional deficit reduction proposal is coming and it will involve tax increases on the rich and entitlement cuts, which I guess we are suppose to call entitlement “reform.”
The Dems in the hall clapped for everything. The Repubs were stingy with applause. (You had to pity John Boehner, up there on camera the whole time behind Obama with his body language, facial expression and applause-o-meter decisions providing the instant Repub reaction to every Obamian syllable.)
The speech had no jokes, no anecdotes, no tributes to individuals in the audiences, no pacing other than a tone of hurry-up and urgency.
Of course it was political
Obviously this was all highly calculated, how could it not be? Some Repubs are dismissing it as a political speech. Well, duh. Of course it was. Shocking.
Obama engaged in quite a bit of Repub-taunting. He repeated several times that this package was full of ideas that Repubs have supported. Tax cuts! Did I mention tax cuts. If Congress doesn’t act, the temporary payroll tax cuts workers are now enjoying are set to expire, which led Obama to a snide reference to those (almost every Republican in Congress) who have signed Grover Norquist’s famous “Taxpayer Protection Pledge.” Thus:
“I know that some of you have sworn oaths to never raise any taxes on anyone for as long as you live. Now is not the time to carve out an exception and raise middle-class taxes, which is why you should pass this bill right away.”
He reminded them that their own founding hero, Abraham Lincoln, found time and money in the middle of the Civil War for infrastructure spending (the Transcontinental Railroad).
Yes, the speech was a political challenge to congressional Repubs. He urged them to pass it “right away.” One suspects they will not. In that case, the speech and the proposal becomes a campaign argument. At least I’m trying to do something while your only goal is to make me a one-term president, Obama will say, did say.
Speaking of Rep. Bachmann, she provided one of the Repub instant reactions and said that everything Obama is proposing has been tried before and hasn’t worked. There you go. Game on. In today’s Washington, it’s not a good use of time to try to separate the politics from the policy any more.
History nerd strikes again
Speaking of FDR, Obama didn’t mention him, but he did borrow one of his themes.
Contrary to the image he later developed, Franklin D. Roosevelt did not run for office in 1932 on the Keynesian ideas that became the New Deal. In fact, he faulted Herbert Hoover for running a deficit and promised to balance the budget. But he also promised to keep trying things until something worked. Here’s how he put that in a fairly famous 1932 campaign speech:
“The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. The millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach. We need enthusiasm, imagination and the ability to face facts, even unpleasant ones, bravely. We need to correct, by drastic means if necessary, the faults in our economic system from which we now suffer. We need the courage of the young. Yours is not the task of making your way in the world, but the task of remaking the world which you will find before you. May every one of us be granted the courage, the faith and the vision to give the best that is in us to that remaking! “
Here’s Obama from last night, channeling his inner FDR:
“I don’t pretend that this plan will solve all our problems. It should not be, nor will it be, the last plan of action we propose. What’s guided us from the start of this crisis hasn’t been the search for a silver bullet. It’s been a commitment to stay at it — to be persistent — to keep trying every new idea that works, and listen to every good proposal, no matter which party comes up with it.”