Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Politics to the Rescue?

Timothy Sherratt


September 16, 2011
by Timothy Sherratt

President Obama’s recent address to Congress was replete with campaign overtones, which have released a predictable flood of denunciation that fails to recognize the realities of the electoral calendar. A campaign speech it certainly was. But the conventional wisdom that politics precludes serious policy debate may not hold water this time around. Mr. Obama’s 2012 campaign challenge to Republicans to pass the American Jobs Act may prove to be that rare case of politics rescuing policy.

The stalled economy and accompanying jitters about a global slowdown have pressured the Administration to seek a second round of stimulus. But right away this President, like any president, faces a dilemma. Direct job creation by the President is all but impossible. Even with congressional support, job creation is largely limited to workers on government payrolls. Restoration of funding to states to pay for teachers or other public employees who have been or will be laid off is about the closest a President can come to creating jobs.

The public sector workers who flanked the President on Monday morning looked like a Who’s Who of Democratic constituents. But the truth is, it would be very difficult to structure a jobs bill that directly incentivized jobs predominantly in the private sector, with the exception of the construction industry, which would benefit from the infrastructure spending that is also a part of the proposed legislation.

Doubtless, a Republican President would have preferred a stimulus strategy of tax cuts to spur job growth. And the supporters in the Rose Garden would have worn suits. The prospects for job growth under such a plan would have been somewhat more dependent on the business climate as divined by the firms benefiting from those cuts. A Republican president cutting taxes, then, does so with less certainty that this strategy will grow jobs in the short term than a Democrat re-hiring public employees. But the denunciations for playing favorites with party supporters would be much the same.

On Monday, President Obama raised the stakes further by proposing to pay for his jobs bill by placing limits on itemized deductions for families earning more than $250,000. The basic outlines of his 2012 campaign strategy are now complete.

On the Republican side, the contest for the nomination has been well under way for some time. But its focus must now shift decisively to the President’s challenge and to the details of the Republican response. This, I suggest, is all to the good.

Why celebrate the premature onset of the 2012 campaign?

The simple answer is legitimacy.  With the President’s address last week, the struggle over the preferred course in economic policy moved out of Washington and away from the “mandates” claimed by both sides after the 2010 elections. Congressional Republicans appear to need the incentives of a looming election to season the politics of conviction with a little doubt. Will the public buy their stonewalling on taxes as principled, or reject it as a do-nothing non-strategy? For his part, those electoral incentives may season President Obama’s lukewarm defense of his policies with a little conviction.

As both parties struggle to frame the debate over the economy, and as congressional leaders find their positions overshadowed by the Presidential contenders on both sides, politics and policy will assume the legitimate relationship afforded by our representative democracy. District- and state-based congressional preoccupations, all in their own way legitimate, often dominate national politics. Now they will be offset by the concerns of the nationwide “constituency” called into being only by a Presidential contest.

Democratic politics thrives on contrasts. Citizens prefer clear choices. If President Obama campaigns as vigorously as he has promised, and Governors Romney and Perry, along with the other Republican candidates, respond in kind, those contrasts between strategic options will only be drawn more clearly.

So, after many months of politics holding government hostage, it could be that politics is instead coming to government’s rescue.

—Timothy Sherratt is a professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, MA.





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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”