Obama's Jobs Speech Long on Promises, Weak On Substance

The weak underbelly of President Obama’s economic philosophy has been apparent for quite some time now. When faced with a choice between a social agenda and economic growth, choose ObamaCare.

When given the option of unions or economic growth, sit on trade agreements and empower the National Labor Relations Board.

Espouse the need to soak the rich and attack successful corporations – even if your own party blanches at raising taxes on American small business.

Let the green agenda at the Environmental Protection Agency undercut growth imperatives.

In short, make the wrong call on policy tradeoffs consistently. But when the chickens come home to roost – years of substandard growth and chronic high unemployment – argue that what is really needed is a “jobs bill” or “American Jobs Act”. As if economic growth was a government program.

For all these reasons, I did not expect the president's speech Thursday evening to be a policy home run. After all, the specifics – nearly all of which were leaked in advance – were warmed-over retreads from previous “jobs” speeches.

Of the initiatives:

• Temporary payroll tax reduction, plus an extension to new businesses
• A new hires tax break
• Extended unemployment insurance with a new training for the long-term unemployed
• Extending the expensing of small business expensing
• Supposed “quick acting” infrastructure spending, especially in schools
• Checks to states to hold on to favored employees

Only the notion that it would be “paid for” was held back from the media and saved for the speech itself. Of course that is just another promise, the president made it a problem for the so-called “super committee” to tackle. No big surprise there.

The president has ducked entitlement reform and believes that government spending is growth, so there was no chance of spending offsets. That means that to provide the offsets would mean he had to come clean with the fact that this is just another tax and spend effort.

So we got another speech with more promises and fundamentally mediocre substance. Indeed, even by late August "Macroeconomic Advisers" was warning that a similar package would generate under 40,000 new jobs per month between now and the end of 2012. This package is “bigger” and would like get scored differently, but the bottom line would be the same.

Details aside, one knew in advance that the president wanted to spend nearly another half trillion dollars and not move the dial on unemployment. We didn’t know that it would be spend and promise to tax, but the shock value is small.

The surprise to me was that the politics were so flat. Sure, President Obama succeeded in floating proposals that Republicans will largely oppose, thereby cementing his strategy of portraying them as recalcitrant even as he supposedly tries to reach across the aisle. And, again, he took to the podium and lectured all members about the evils of partisan divide, thereby running away from his Democratic colleagues on the Hill.

But these are small-ball tactics on policy and politics. They do not do anything to counter the emerging narrative: President Obama is not ready to lead. He has proven to be an unsuccessful and unpopular economic leader.

Thursday night, he cemented his reputation as believing in favored constituencies over broad economic growth and a commitment to spend, spend, spend.

The speech and proposed legislation will soon be parsed for pieces that have merit and the potential for bipartisan support – and some will be found. But the philosophy they embody has failed and will not be embraced.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin is president of the American Action Forum and a former director of the Congressional Budget Office.