Among the many criticisms of President Obama's leadership style is an admonishment that he doesn't use the bully pulpit enough to take his case to the people. Running counter to that argument, this week the president embarked on a three-day bus tour through the Midwest with a laser focus on the nation's flagging economy and his prescriptions for fixing it.
From Monday to Wednesday, he engaged with the public at four town halls and an economic forum in Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois. In between digs at Republicans ("Some in Congress would rather see their opponents lose than America win"), the president also expounded on his ideas for creating jobs — ideas that, he said, were it not for GOP obstructionists in Congress, could be realized now.
1. Extend the payroll tax cut.
In last December's notorious deal, in which unemployment benefits were extended in exchange for a two-year extension of Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy, Obama also managed to get a 2 percent payroll tax cut for all working Americans. That extra bit of cash that showed up in everyone's paychecks expires at the end of this year. "I want to cut the payroll tax again to help families make ends meet," the president said at a forum in Peosta, Iowa. "That's meant an extra $1,000 in the pockets of typical American families. That means more customers for your business, more buyers of your products."
2. Rebuild our roads, bridges and railways.
Obama has been pushing infrastructure investment since 2009's Recovery Act, which put $105 billion toward constructing roads and broadband development. Now he wants the government to push those road, bridge and railway efforts further. The president's six-year plan, originally proposed in his 2012 budget, would provide an economic jolt of $50 billion in the first year, construct a high-speed-rail network, create a national infrastructure bank that would supplement federal funding with private capital and modernize our aviation system, among other provisions.
Explaining the hit that construction workers took after the housing bubble burst, the president said if Congress passed an infrastructure bill, it would revive the industry. "We could be rebuilding roads and bridges and schools and parks all across America right now," he told a town hall in Cannon Falls, Minn. "Could put hundreds of thousands of folks to work right now."
3. Give veterans employment support.
Earlier this month, the president proposed several initiatives to help veterans navigate the labor market. Among his ideas are the Returning Heroes Tax Credit for companies that hire unemployed veterans; the Wounded Warrior Tax Credit, which increases an existing tax credit for firms that hire veterans with service-related disabilities; and a challenge to the private sector to train or hire 100,000 unemployed veterans by the end of 2013.
"Right now we've got our veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, who've taken their place among the greatest of generations, have made extraordinary sacrifices," Obama said in Cannon Falls. " … Let's put them back to work, and let's let them use their skills to get this country moving again. Congress could do that right now."
4. Pass those trade agreements.
In 2010 and 2011, President Obama finalized trade agreements with India, South Korea, Panama and Colombia. The agreements stipulated the protection of environmental and labor standards and would significantly increase American exports. The deal with India, for one, would boost U.S. exports by $10 billion a year, supporting 50,000 jobs.
"We've got a whole bunch of Kias and Hyundais here in the United States of America on our roads, and that's fine and good," Obama said in Decorah, Iowa, of the South Korea agreement, which would expand the U.S. auto industry. "But I want some Chryslers and some GMs and some Fords on the roads of South Korea as well. We should go ahead and get those trade deals done."
5. Pass the patent-reform bill.
President Obama has repeatedly called on Congress to reform the nation's patent system, which currently requires an average three-year wait to get a patent. "There's a bill pending in Congress right now that's called the America Invents bill. It basically says if entrepreneurs are coming up with good ideas … and they wanted to patent it in some way, make it easier for them so that they can market it and make money off it and hire people for it," he told a town hall in Atkinson, Ill. "We could do that right now. The only thing that's holding us back is our politics."
If these old, familiar — but motionless — ideas sound underwhelming in the face of the economy's overwhelming needs, there's more. On Wednesday the White House announced that the president has more-immediate plans for jump-starting the economy, to be unveiled in a major speech next month. But for now, this five-point agenda is what he's working with.
"There are two questions around the president's proposals," Margaret Simms, an economist and director of the Urban Institute's Low-Income Working Families Project, told The Root. "Are they big enough and broad enough? And how soon will they kick in? Patent reform and trade agreements may be good ideas for repositioning the U.S. economy in the long run, in terms of making it more competitive internationally and spurring innovation, but those things won't make significant dents in unemployment in the next six months."
However, Simms also pointed out that, with a Congress that's largely dead set against federal spending, the president would have scant support for the "more stimulus" approach favored by many economists. "If I were to think about the context in which the president is making his proposals, I can see how it would be difficult to put together a package that would be bold and comprehensive," she said. "If he's going to propose it and have any hope of passing it, he really does have to engage the public because right now Congress is not so inclined. Trying to use the bully pulpit is probably the only way of generating significant support to get things moving."
Now that he's trying to do just that … do you think President Obama is making a compelling case for his jobs agenda?