Stimulus? Who Said Anything About a Stimulus?

The Obama administration is eager for you to know that the president will lay out bold new initiatives for the economy in a series of events next week - a Labor Day union rally, economic remarks in Cleveland (rebutting John Boehner?) on Wednesday and a full-dress press conference on Friday.

What the administration does not want you to do is call the new initiatives a "stimulus." Like the word "surge" when describing Obama's replication of the Bush strategy for Iraq in Afghanistan, the word "stimulus" is verboten on Team Obama.

Soon after the Washington Post had reported in an email blast that an internal debate inside the White House had concluded that the administration would call for more stimulus measures next week, the Obama press shop started pushing back immediately to say that what was being discussed was not a stimulus and was nothing like the $800 billion measure passed last year.

And, to be fair, what's being leaked out is pretty small potatoes. Most tantalizing is a payroll tax holiday that would allow employers to skip some portion of the federal taxes they pay on each employee. The other measures are more "targeted" tax cuts to spur hiring.

If past experience tells us anything, the actual package, when announced will include some spending to placate unions and liberals who believe that the Obama stimulus was, in fact, too small. It will also likely include some "targeting" for that payroll tax holiday - both in employers who are covered (expect "small businesses" to fare better than big businesses) and in the time that it lasts (one month sounds about right).

But this leak phase is the come-on to get members of Congress, especially Republicans and conservative Democrats in the showroom. The hope among Democrats, though, is that they can ultimately get Republicans to oppose the plan, Republicans are watching anxiously. Will it be good enough to back? If it isn't, can they label it a stimulus? By rolling out the details slowly, the White House will hope to make Republicans look disingenuous if they ultimately decide to vote against the bill.

President Obama has been trying his election year line with the existing little small business package, hammering Republicans, even when Congress is out of session, for holding up the bill. If the not-a-stimulus stimulus bogs down, he will redouble those efforts.

The other advantage to the White House of talking about the not-a-stimulus stimulus right now is that Democrats in Congress are coming back to Washington very unhappy and very afraid of the old-fashioned butt whipping they are facing in November.

The existing items on the agenda - passing a budget and deciding how many of the Bush tax cuts should be allowed to expire - are unhappy subjects indeed. Several Senate Democrats are suggesting keeping all of the tax cuts in place, even for those mean old rich folks. Obama needs a way to get what he wants -- a tax hike to pay for government programs and fend off the ballooning deficit -- without looking like he's in favor of higher taxes.

Like the governors of many states with high sales taxes, Obama is trying out the tax holiday idea in hopes that voters will view the temporary removal of a punishment as a reward.