An ambitious jobs package would be a good policy but a losing electoral strategy.
On Friday, Chris Matthews took to both his own show and Jansing & Co. to inveigh against what he called President Obama's "pissant" job creation policy. "My take on this is it's time for the president to go big," he said on Hardball. "Force the Republicans to say no to a big jobs bill that would actually put millions of people back to work." At least that way, he argued, it would be clear what both parties stand for going into the 2012 election.
On Saturday, The Nation's Leslie Savan echoed Matthews:
Matthews was on fire—admittedly not hard for a man whose normal temperature is just short of kindling. Too often dismissed as an overexcitable, unintentionally comical pundit, Matthews has been arguing for months now that Obama needs to go “big and bold.” He thinks the president should brag about his accomplishments, talk more like Bill Clinton, and send out more and better surrogates, because he seems eerily alone out there. Coaching Obama on how to market both his presidency and Keynesian economics itself, Matthews practically barked at him to go all Harry Truman–meets–Paul Krugman and rail against the Do Nothing Congress."He’s got to be aggressive. He’s got to be big time,” Matthews said. “Stop this nickel and dime, ‘a couple bucks for the teachers, a couple bucks for the firefighters. I’m going to reduce the payroll tax.’ This is piss-ant. You can’t get re-elected with tactics. He needs a strategy. Which is, ‘we’re different from the Republicans.’ ”
This is the perennial critique of Obama, and there is something to it. A larger, more aggressive jobs proposal would be great. However, both Matthews and Savan ignore important reasons why it hasn't happened yet. It's not just a failure of nerve on Obama's part that prevents him from bulldozing the opposition. There are other factors at play.
It's true that sending a more ambitious jobs bill to Congress would define the stakes of the upcoming election by forcing Republicans to take a stand against it. But what about Congressional Democrats and down ticket Democratic candidates? Obama's goal isn't just to defeat Mitt Romney, but to move into his second term with a governing Democratic majority. For that to happen, Democrats need to successfully win and defend Congressional seats in conservative districts, meaning they must first position themselves as conservatives.
Imagine you're a red state Democratic senator up for re-election in 2012. The local media, your constituency, and most potential campaign donors are all overwhelmingly hostile to Keynesian stimulus policy. Your opponent, a Tea Party Republican, is running on a pro-austerity platform. And while you're busy fending off charges that you're a socialist, Obama walks into the Capitol with a massive, expensive jobs bill tucked under his arm.
What do you do? If you vote against it, Mitt Romney will humiliate the president by saying that not even his own party agrees with his radical left-wing policies. But if you vote for it, you'll lose the election. Come January 2013, if Obama tries to get the bill passed again, there will be one fewer Democratic vote in the Senate that he can rely on.
Understandably, the White House might see putting members of its party in that position as bad tactics. But there's no reason for liberals to take it on faith that Obama will aim for a bigger austerity program once he's done campaigning for re-election. After all, there are always the 2014 midterms to look forward to. Democrats, understandably, want to keep winning more seats, and so the likeliest outcome is a continuation of a trend we've seen for the past couple of decades: the Democratic Party's gradual rightward drift on economic policy.