President Obama addressed the media Friday to renew his push for his jobs bill. His remarks came largely in light of the fact that, amid private-sector job growth, states and municipalities are still laying off government workers, dampening the overall economy.
But in making his case, Obama gave a subtle nod to a crucial but little-discussed consequence of the ideological differences between the parties: The fight Republicans and Democrats have waged over the broader role of government for the past year and a half has led Congress to ignore the unemployment crisis facing the country right now. He urged elected officials to keep the two issues separate.
“Now, if Congress decides despite all that they aren’t going to do anything about [the jobs bill] simply because it’s an election year, then they should explain to the American people why,” Obama said. “There’s going to be plenty of time to debate our respective plans for the future. That’s a debate I’m eager to have, but right now people in this town should be focused on doing everything we can to keep our recovery going and keeping our country strong.”
It’s difficult to disentangle the government’s response to the recession and the safety net itself, because they’re both tied to contentious issues of government taxing and spending, and because the safety net is an important automatic cushion for the economy when it hits a recession.
But when Republicans came to power on Capitol Hill they seized on the fact that the economic crisis had caused deficits to soar, and used it as leverage to pick a generational fight over federal programs they dislike. Those programs cost money, they note, and by cutting or eliminating them we can reduce the deficits.
By making the deficits the issue, instead of attacking the programs on their merits, Republicans placed a deadly constraint on the government’s ability to temporarily run deficits now in order to put people back to work. That’s part of the reason why renewing the payroll tax cut was so difficult and why once-bipartisan initiatives like infrastructure spending — initiatives that would help the economy enormously — have become impossible.
Obama’s big ask is that Republicans unlink the two, so that Congress can address the unemployment crisis, and in the meantime, the parties can fight over the appropriateness and sustainability of Medicare, Medicaid and other social programs. They won’t oblige him, and the consequence is a persistently weak economy.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.