Breaking up, it turns out, isn’t that hard to do. Not when it comes to President Obama’s jobs bill or his relationship with congressional Republicans.
Earlier this week, Obama’s $447 billion American Jobs Act fell nine votes short of a filibuster-proof majority (Majority Leader Harry Reid voted no for procedural reasons, giving him the option to bring the bill back up). Republicans noted that the only bipartisanship visited upon Obama’s bill was in opposition: 46 Republicans and two other Democrats (Jon Tester of Montana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska) voted no; West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin said he sided with Obama on ending the filibuster but couldn’t approve the underlying bill.
Yet the degree of Democratic unity was surprising, especially given Obama’s meager poll numbers. With the political terrain so unsettled, it’s a wonder to the White House that every other Senate Democrat—including those facing tough 2012 reelection fights, such as Missouri’s Claire McCaskill and Ohio’s Sherrod Brown—stood with the president.
To forge the unexpectedly robust party unity, the jobs fight required a stark reversal of priorities. In previous tussles with Democrats over the stimulus, health care, and Wall Street reform, the White House sought victory, and the gory legislative details were secondary. The same was true of this year’s scraps with House Republicans over the 2011 continuing resolution and the debt ceiling, although with less collegiality. Now, the opposite is true. Obama owns his jobs bill, and his incessant demand for Congress to pass it—the target of parody among conservative dart-throwers but increasingly a rallying cry among Democrats—elevates tactics over results.
Make no mistake, Obama wants the bill passed. He proved that when he bowed to vote-counting reality in the Senate Democratic cloakroom and jettisoned a bundle of tax increases on those earning more than $250,000. In return, he got a 5.6 percent surcharge on millionaires. That was an easy shift for the president because it sharpened the populist stakes and made the fight more attractive not only for Democratic senators but also for the party’s base, which was bitterly disappointed by the outcome of the debt-ceiling showdown.
Obama learned from all his fights with House and Senate Republicans this year that failure to define the stakes at the front end left him looking diffident and muddled. Even when the president achieved a compromise, he looked weak, especially (but not exclusively) to his base. Now he wants the fight—his fight on his terms. And he’ll stoke the flames relentlessly to define differences with Republicans and prod them to move in his direction.
It hasn’t happened yet. But evidence suggests that, by standing firm, congressional Republicans are losing some ground. Polls show steadily rising support for Obama’s plan (63 percent of respondents backed it in the new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll). A recent United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll found that almost all of the elements in Obama’s jobs plan tested better than competing ideas favored by congressional Republicans and the GOP’s presidential candidates. Meanwhile, Republicans, who have led or tied with Democrats in 50 of this year’s 59 generic-ballot tests of how Americans intend to vote in the 2012 congressional elections, found themselves trailing in two surveys this week (48 percent to 40 percent in Reuters/Ipsos, and 45 percent to 41 percent in the NBC/Wall Street Journal survey).
The NBC/WSJ numbers may give the GOP genuine heartburn. The same survey in August showed Republicans leading Democrats 47 percent to 41 percent. Republicans haven’t seen such a sizable two-month reversal in that poll since 1997. The one thing Obama’s strategy hasn’t yet done is generate any improvement in his own approval ratings, the best single indicator of his reelection prospects.
For more than a month now, House Republicans have been pleading with Obama to break up his jobs bill into smaller parts: principally an extension (and possible expansion) of payroll-tax cuts; a continuation of jobless benefits; and perhaps some form of infrastructure spending. That pleading signals a realization that voters deplore inaction, gridlock, and paralysis (just 13 percent, according to Gallup, approve of Congress)—perceptions that could prove toxic for congressional Republicans and a tonic for Obama’s reelection campaign, which is looking to direct discontent over the country’s direction anywhere but the White House.
Obama is now willing to dice his plan into components, and he may be willing to accept a new piece, according to White House and Senate Democratic sources who asked not to be named: trading the return of more than $1 trillion in offshore corporate profits to finance a $50 billion infrastructure bank. The $50 billion would come from enticing corporations to repatriate those offshore gains at a lower tax rate of 5 percent instead of the current 35 percent. Before going down this road, as with the millionaires surtax, Obama will have to see the votes to back up the strategy. The process and timing of bringing parts of his jobs bill to the House and Senate floors remain murky, but no action appears likely until November.
In the meantime, Obama will keep campaigning for his American Jobs Act, even as he quietly negotiates its breakup and plots signing ceremonies on his own terms. Although it seems unlikely now, it no longer appears inconceivable that, before 2012, both Obama and congressional Republicans could find it in their interest to make a deal on jobs and pocket some accomplishments to sell at the polls—the way the Republican Congress and President Clinton did in 1996.
It’s not so hard to do.
This article appears in the October 15, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.