Any day now, someone is going to grab the wheel of the 2012 presidential election and yank it toward the issue that American voters overwhelmingly worry about: jobs. There are still 13 million Americans looking for work; the average time someone spends unemployed has soared to nearly 10 months. So the candidates can’t keep fighting over gas prices, contraception, and the specter of some ambiguously far-off debt crisis – can they?
If President Obama’s speech on Tuesday is any indication, maybe they can. In what was unmistakably an opening volley in his expected general election campaign against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Obama breezed right past jobs and landed a jump-kick square in the chest of the Republican Party’s plans for the federal budget.
Few will note or remember the presidential boiler plate on infrastructure and educational investment that Obama opened with before a gathering of top journalists. The meat of the speech – the excerpts the White House promoted in advance – was a rip-roaring attack on Republican budget-cutting.
Obama called Rep. Paul Ryan’s, R-Wis., House budget “social Darwinism” and “a Trojan horse,” and “so far to the right it makes the 'Contract with America' look like the 'New Deal'.” He warned of millions of college students losing loans, national parks closed or restricted, the End of Medicare as We Know It. He said the plan would eliminate tax breaks that help the middle class (though at least one of his named examples, the home mortgage deduction, is actually quite skewed to helping the rich).
It wasn’t a speech about job-creation, or even really about growth. It was the president picking a fight over economic “fairness” and the appropriate size and scope of the federal government. Republicans fought him back on one issue: the size of federal deficits and debt.
Those were the issues Washington fiddled with last summer, up to the brink of near-default on U.S. debt, while the economy slogged through one of the many rough patches of this recovery. Voters didn’t like that attention drift then. They won’t like it now.
Obama and his GOP rivals are floundering in the gray area of the recent economic upturn. Jobs are being created, which blunts some Republican attacks on the president, but not so many jobs that Obama can start crowing about his record. So he’s mostly talking around the question of how to create more jobs, right away, and so are Republicans.
Any day now, that will change. Right?