JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA – There have been many economy road shows over the past 4½ years, a mix of presidential pageantry and salesmanship to convince the United States and Congress to do more to create jobs and improve future economic prospects.
President Barack Obama began another one this week, taking him to the vast port of Jacksonville, Florida, on Thursday to highlight his desire for more spending on roads, airports, bridges and trading hubs to meet the economic demands of a global economy.
What is different this time, compared to “Recovery Summer” and “Main Street” job tours in the past, is the relatively modest request at the heart of Obama’s wish list. Rather than adopting his activist vision of government, the president is simply asking Congress — specifically a recalcitrant group of House Republicans — to get out of the way.
There is a lot that Obama wants from Congress, little of which is likely achievable in the current political circumstances. For Obama, who is looking to put his second term on a more focused course, preserving the status quo might be a victory in itself. “Washington hasn’t just ignored the problem,” he told an audience at a dockside cruise terminal in Jacksonville. “It’s made things worse.”
The impending budget debate and expiration of the federal borrowing limit in several months has set the stage for another politically induced economic setback similar to the one that followed the 2011 debt-ceiling fight. In a series of economic speeches this week, Obama has threatened to reject spending bills that do not meet his goal of helping the middle class.
In Jacksonville, Obama highlighted a pair of projects whose permitting he helped expedite via executive order, and condemned House Republicans for “pushing bills that would cut education, cut science, cut research.”
The criticism echoed the challenge the president made to Republicans the previous day, when he called for an economic plan that reaches beyond spending cuts and a repeal of his health care act.
“Shutting down the government just because I’m for keeping it open — that’s not an economic plan,” Obama said. “Refusing to pay bills you’ve already racked up isn’t an economic plan. That’s just being a deadbeat.”
Midterm elections are looming next year, and both the White House and congressional Republicans view the outcome as important to determining Obama’s legacy as an advocate of government and in preparing the nation’s economy for the future.
So far, congressional Republicans say it is the president who needs to change by further cutting spending and cutting back the federal government’s role in the economy.
Despite Republican efforts, Obama told audiences in Illinois, Missouri and Jacksonville that his mix of budget decisions, tax cuts and health care legislation have brought the country back from economic calamity.
Obama would like the things he is asking for in his speeches this week: congressional help to make college and home ownership more affordable, more spending on primary education, job training and basic scientific research that he says spawns the jobs the American economy should be creating.
But few of those proposals have gone anywhere in a divided Congress. And despite Obama’s re-election in November, the political circumstances have remained largely unchanged.
“Remind Washington what’s at stake,” Obama told the audience in Jacksonville.