Tuesday, September 06, 2011

No more Mr Nice Guy against Republicans

Business Times - 06 Sep 2011

No more Mr Nice Guy against Republicans

Obama should blame them for the political and economic mess in Washington


IT HAS been common practice in Washington for more than two centuries: The US president sends a letter to the leaders of Congress in which he asks to be allowed to address the two legislative chambers on matters of national importance. There has never been an instance in which Congress denied the White House's request.

But there is always a first time for everything in Washington. And in a year dominated by nasty political and legislative fights, it was not surprising that even the tradition of an American president addressing a joint session of Congress - reflecting bipartisanship and a sense of national unity and political civility - was going to be challenged.

After Congress had shut down for the summer recess - following the nasty battle over raising the debt limit (and the ensuing downgrading of US credit rating) - President Barack Obama told reporters that he would be delivering an address before Congress, outlining his plan to grow the economy and create new jobs, when lawmakers return to Washington this month.

Indeed, the US government report issued in Washington on Friday that job creation in the US came to a halt in August only helped highlight the pressure on Mr Obama to speak of new plans to re-ignite the economic recovery.

Economic gloom

The report indicated that the unemployment rate was unchanged at 9.1 per cent coupled with other new signs that economic growth is at a standstill - slowdown in the manufacturing sector; falling consumer confidence; a continuing crisis in the housing industry. All of this has only added to the sense of economic gloom in Wall Street and Washington. And that in turn should have made it more likely that Congress and the White House end the political bickering and join forces as soon as possible behind a new economic plan to foster recovery. Should have; but won't.

Mr Obama did send a letter to the Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner in which he requested to address a joint session of Congress at 8pm tomorrow. Reporters in Washington assumed that that is exactly what would happen: a joint session of Congress at 8pm tomorrow.

But, hey, this was after all Mr Obama asking for an invitation from the Republicans in Congress, including lawmakers who continue to believe that the current White House occupant is 'un-American', if not 'anti-American', not to mention the 'base' of the Republican Party that is dominated by activists who insist that Mr Obama was born in Kenya, that he is a secret Muslim and a raging socialist.

In fact, the Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made it clear that his top political priority is to deny Mr Obama a second term in office, and, indeed, much of what the Republicans have been doing in the last three years has been aimed at sabotaging his entire policy agenda - including policies that they had supported in the past - as part of an effort to make it impossible for him to take the steps to revive the American economy, and by extension to de-legitimise the Obama presidency.

So why should anyone be shocked when Mr Boehner sent a letter back to the White House denying Mr Obama's request and asking him to reschedule his appearance for Thursday.

The Republicans blamed the White House for the mess. Their party's leading presidential candidates were scheduled to hold a televised debate at the Ronald Reagan Library tomorrow at the same time that Mr Obama had scheduled his Congressional address.

And the Republicans accuse the White House of trying to divert attention from this event - in which Texas Governor Rick Perry will make his first debate appearance.

Mr Obama ignored 'a mutually agreeable date and time before making any public announcement' on the date and time of his address, said a spokesman for Mr Boehner, a Republican from Ohio who had led the troops in the recent fight with the White House and the Democrats over the debt ceiling.

In a way, the outcome of that debate was seen as a major political defeat for Mr Obama who had failed earlier in the summer to win congressional support for legislation that would have provided for a balanced approach towards deficit cutting - a mix of cutting government spending and raising taxes on the rich.

At the same time, opposition from the Republicans on Capitol Hill makes it unlikely that Congress will approve any new bills that would stimulate the weak economy and could (perhaps) help create new jobs. But notwithstanding the politics that seems to be running against him, Mr Obama is expected to propose in his congressional address to spend money to generate jobs in the short run while cutting spending and reforming the tax code over the long haul.

In fact, last Wednesday, the same day that the White House and the Speaker were exchanging letters regarding Mr Obama's address, the president called on Congress to pass a spending bill to finance airport rebuilding projects before it expires at the end of September. He noted that 74,000 temporary layoffs could result if that spending bill is not approved.

Republicans' priority

But the Republicans have made it clear that cutting government spending remains their main priority. Indeed, some Republican lawmakers have stressed that any new emergency government-financed measures in response to the destruction brought about by hurricane Irene would only be approved in exchange for equivalent cuts in other government spending.

Many Democrats have urged that Mr Obama take a tougher stand against the Republicans who seem to be getting away with setting the agenda. They did it once again last Wednesday when Mr Boehner ended up winning another political round in his fight with the White House, forcing Mr Obama to reschedule his address for Thursday.

According to White House sources, Mr Obama will call during his address for extending a cut in payroll tax beyond its expiration day at the end of the year, for congressional approval of the proposed free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, and for funding for infrastructure projects.

No one expects an extension of the cut in payroll tax and the approval of the FTAs to have any dramatic effect on job growth before the November election next year. Providing funding for infrastructure projects as part of a wider fiscal stimulus package could have done the trick. But the Republicans are dead set against even the most modest stimulus package.

So Democrats and allies of the White House are telling Mr Obama that since under the current political balance of power in Washington he would not be able to do anything that will bring about more job growth before the election, he should frame his address on Thursday and the rest of his political strategy in a way that places the blame on the political and economic mess in Washington on the real culprits, the Republicans.

After all, he has almost nothing to lose at this point.

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