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The Jobs Speech and a Democratic Opportunity

It's safe to say that most Democrats liked the tone of last night's presidential "jobs" speech even if they considered it far too late and/or are skeptical that Obama will sustain it over time.

Aside from its unusually passionate delivery, its focus on jobs rather than deficit reduction, and its implicit (if not terribly explicit) partisanship, the speech also framed the economic emergency and GOP obtructionism in their proper historical context. The president reminded viewers that undermining government's capacity to act in this type of situation cuts deeply against the country's traditions, and amounts to an effort to roll back policies to the early twentieth century:

[W]hat we can't do -- what I will not do -- is let this economic crisis be used as an excuse to wipe out the basic protections that Americans have counted on for decades. (Applause.) I reject the idea that we need to ask people to choose between their jobs and their safety. I reject the argument that says for the economy to grow, we have to roll back protections that ban hidden fees by credit card companies, or rules that keep our kids from being exposed to mercury, or laws that prevent the health insurance industry from shortchanging patients. I reject the idea that we have to strip away collective bargaining rights to compete in a global economy. (Applause.) We shouldn't be in a race to the bottom, where we try to offer the cheapest labor and the worst pollution standards. America should be in a race to the top. And I believe we can win that race.

In fact, this larger notion that the only thing we can do to restore prosperity is just dismantle government, refund everybody's money, and let everyone write their own rules, and tell everyone they're on their own -- that's not who we are. That's not the story of America.

Even more pointedly, given the debate that has now broken out in the Republican presidential contest over whether to kill or simply gut the New Deal and Great Society safety net programs, Obama exposed the radicalism of the "constitutional conservatism" that has gripped the GOP:

Ask yourselves -- where would we be right now if the people who sat here before us decided not to build our highways, not to build our bridges, our dams, our airports? What would this country be like if we had chosen not to spend money on public high schools, or research universities, or community colleges? Millions of returning heroes, including my grandfather, had the opportunity to go to school because of the G.I. Bill. Where would we be if they hadn't had that chance? (Applause.)

How many jobs would it have cost us if past Congresses decided not to support the basic research that led to the Internet and the computer chip? What kind of country would this be if this chamber had voted down Social Security or Medicare just because it violated some rigid idea about what government could or could not do? (Applause.) How many Americans would have suffered as a result?

This is as close as Obama has come in a long time to abandoning the pretense that today's Republicans are anything like their go-along-to-get-along predecessors who were willing on occasion to bend ideology to get things done. If you accept the idea that his bipartisan rhetoric has been in part a "set-up" to expose GOP obstructionism and radicalism, this speech represents the first of what ought to become a series of communications that "pivot" to a message that increases rather than obscures partisan differentiation.

But another big presidential shoe will drop next week when, as Obama announced during the speech, the White House releases a formal proposal for long-term deficit reduction measures for consideration by the congressional "super-committee"--and to "pay for" the jobs initiative he proposed last night. He has already put Democrats on notice that he will endorse "reforms" in Medicare they won't like. If the deficit-reduction proposal moves even more aggressively than anticipated towards "entitlement reform" in order to avoid deal-killing tax increases or excessive short-term cuts in discretionary spending, the partisan differentiation he sought last night might be "re-blurred" at the very moment Republicans are seeking cover for their radicalism on entitlements.

So this is a moment of great opportunity for Democrats, but it won't last long.

UPDATE: Mark Schmitt's take on the speech is similar to mine but framed differently and very interestingly: he calls Obama's approach in the jobs speech "fighting bipartisanship." As someone who labeled Obama's original strategy for dealing with the GOP "grassroots bipartisanship," aimed at either forcing GOP cooperation or exposing its obstructionism, I obviously agree with Schmitt's parallel interpretation of what the president is trying to do now.