When Congress returned from their time in the witless protection program—their summer break—it seemed a sure thing they would get the message delivered by the latest polls. Namely, even though Barack Obama is at the lowest approval rating of his presidency, he's still pulling more than twice the approval rating of Congress. Neither Obama nor Congress have anything to beat their chests about, nor do they have any assurance that they will be returned to their plush lives in Washington after the 2012 elections. But for some reason, they don't seem to care. Nothing illustrates it better than last week's job speech by Obama and the dead-on-arrival reception it's receiving from clueless Republicans.
Obama knows he's in trouble. Being a man of considerable oratory powers, he turned to his strongest suit–giving a speech. This time, though, he was going for the Big Enchilada in front of a joint session of Congress where the eyes and ears of the nation would surely be focused on him.
Unfortunately, a pattern with which we are all becoming far too familiar immediately repeated itself. Obama said he'd give his speech on Wednesday. Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner decided otherwise. Nope, Boehner told Obama, we can't have all those senators running around on the House floor and besides, we're too busy on Wednesday with the presidential debate to listen to you. If you want to talk to us, you can do it on Thursday.
So Obama caved and agreed to speak on Thursday, knowing full well that his speech would then compete with the opening of the NFL season and that a significant portion of his potential audience would rather watch monstrously huge men smash into each other than waste another minute watching Congress and the president do the same thing verbally.
To make a long speech much shorter, Obama rolled out an ambitious $447 billion "plan" that promised jobs rebuilding America's infrastructure from roads to schools. According to the president, the plan would be paid for through a combination of closing tax loopholes and eliminating federal subsidies for certain industries while raising taxes on wealthy individuals and tossing some crumbs to the proletariat in the form of continuing the minimal payroll tax cuts enacted earlier. To add a sense of urgency to an already dire situation, Obama told Congress they had to immediately enact his program, proclaiming, "The only thing stopping it is politics."
I'll give the president credit for being absolutely correct about the politics. But then again, that's what certain political watchers would refer to as a firm grasp of the obvious.
Congress listened, but it really wasn't until this week that the Republican leadership actually began to talk. "All he's really doing is just proposing a hodge-podge of retread ideas aimed at convincing people that a temporary fix is really permanent and that it will create permanent jobs—and then daring Republicans to vote against it," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters this week, adding, "Well, I think most people see through all this."
The "retread ideas" McConnell is talking about come from the fact that there was really nothing new in Obama's plan. We've already tried using federal "stimulus" funds to create jobs and spent hundreds of billions of taxpayer (and borrowed) money to do it. But as last week's grim job report noted, with 312 million people in what was once the greatest economic powerhouse on the planet, the net gain for American jobs in August was zero. Not one.
Even worse, although we also spent hundreds of billions bailing out private corporations such as Bank of America because they were declared "too big to fail," the result of that publicly funded largesse is becoming distressingly clear. Depending on whose numbers you use, Bank of America received between $45 and $97 billion in federal bailout funds. Yet this week it announced a workforce reduction of 40,000 jobs, aiming for $5 billion a year in savings. Now there's some gratitude to "the little people" for funding their bailout.
So the Republicans say no to more stimulus spending. But that's not all. They've said and continue to say no to Obama's plans for raising revenue to pay for additional stimulus efforts. They're not going to raise taxes on the wealthiest among us. They're not going to close tax "loopholes" and they're unlikely to end subsidies for some of their biggest corporate campaign contributors, like the oil and gas industry. If anything, they'll take whatever tax reductions Obama has in his plan and tell him to stuff the rest.
Now, it would be wonderful if all this Republican negativism was countered by their plan for getting America out of the ditch into which Wall Street's speculative greed drove us. But they don't have one. In fact, whatever semblance of a plan the Republicans have put forward has one thing in common with Obama's plan: we've seen it all before. More tax breaks for already wealthy businesses and individuals, more reductions in environmental regulations, more cuts to help for the poor, and more privatization of government functions—nothing new there, and, like Obama's suggestions, it's all been tried before and failed to produce results.
To boil it down, all we're getting is what we've already seen. Obama offered nothing new in his jobs speech and the Republicans have already rejected it. And the Republicans are offering nothing new in their "plan"—nor anything that makes sense—and it, too, is likely headed for the trash bin.
So here's the burning question: Who's fooling who in this so-called debate? The answer, unfortunately, is no one. The conclusion is shamefully obvious. Washington's partisans continue to fiddle as our once-great nation burns.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.