Barack Obama isn't pivoting to jobs; he's prepping for battle.
What does a president in a perpetual campaign do when national disapproval rates start rising higher than 50 percent? He returns to Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., the site of a Lincoln-Douglas debate and, even more impressively—as a nearly breathless White House informed us—the place he delivered his first major economic address as a U.S. senator.
Despite media reports, however, Obama didn't unveil any new plan to "move America forward," and he certainly didn't say anything historic. All he did was flee to safer political ground, hitting themes we've heard for five years running. And why not? Evidence suggests that vacuous economic populism is a political winner these days. No doubt, Republicans have struggled to empathize with the anxieties of struggling middle- and working-class voters; on homeownership, on secure retirement and on enhancing social mobility, we hear far too little.
That's not to say that Obama offered a single new constructive idea. Raise the minimum wage? Force banks to lend money more easily? Subsidize clean energy? Universal preschool? "I'm going to challenge CEOs from some of America's best companies to hire more Americans," says our humble leader—because, evidently, CEOs want to stick it to workers for the heck of it. Bold.
Whatever you make of these ideas in general, they are unserious policy prescriptions for a stagnant economy. If the president were earnest about moving forward, he would have offered something, anything—regulatory slowdown or a reprieve for small businesses or a pipeline even. Instead, the GOP was presented with a grab bag of progressive hobbyhorses that he knows have no chance of going anywhere. And isn't that the point? Keep your heel on the throat of the obstructionists and win the politics of the day. The House and White House are ready to battle over the debt ceiling and budget, and that's what this is about.
So what do Republicans do? Obama quipped that repealing Obamacare and cutting spending isn't an economic plan. Well, it's as good an economic plan as Obama has produced. This year, more than 830,000 Americans are new part-time workers, and 97,000 fewer of them have full-time positions. Poll after poll finds that small businesses are cutting back or hiring fewer full-time workers because of Obamacare. Other polls show Obamacare's popularity decreasing as implementation ratchets up.
Yet broadly speaking, he's correct; there has to be more. Republicans offer no inspiring alternative. It is incomprehensible that the GOP hasn't devised some palpable and bold 10-step economic plan (with some nifty title, such as "A Better Bargain") that deals with crony capitalism, government overreach and economic growth. Even before the speech was given, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's office was touting Republican alternatives to Obama's non-plan. 1) Urge the Democratic-controlled Senate to join the House and pass a job training bill. 2) Approve the Keystone XL pipeline. 3) Support the bipartisan effort to expand offshore domestic energy production.
Seriously? That's it? All fine ideas that won't inspire many voters. Obama says things such as "the basic bargain of this country says that if you work hard, you can get ahead … build a secure life for your family and know that your kids will do even better someday," and all Republicans can think of is to demand that the Senate pass a job training program? It's quite a feat to be staler than the president, but it seems the GOP is up for the challenge. A free market economy made that bargain possible, not a government-funded solar panel plant. Most people probably still get it. Obama has presided—and, in many ways, extended—the worst recovery in American history. He's out of ideas. Republicans aren't going to get a better chance to make their economic case. If they ever bother coming up with one.