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Editorial: Obama pragmatic, but won’t roll over

Updated: November 22, 2011 11:12AM

President Barack Obama’s message in his long-awaiting jobs speech on Thursday was simple and straightforward:

I’m a pragmatist, but I’m not rolling over.

After a summer of ugly partisanship in Washington, Obama went on the offensive. In a spirited and plucky speech before a joint session of Congress, the president laid out an ambitious, $450 billion plan for putting Americans back to work. He challenged Congress to pass the plan, which is heavy on tax cuts, immediately.

But he soundly rejected deregulation and a hands-off approach to government: “What we can’t do — what I won’t do — is let this economic crisis be used as an excuse to wipe out the basic protections that Americans have counted on for generations.”

At roughly $240 billion, the centerpiece of Obama’s American Jobs Act is enhancing the existing payroll tax break and extending it to include employers’ contributions. For employees, the Social Security payroll tax rate would drop from 6.2 to 3.1 percent in 2012. It’s now at the reduced rate of 4.2 percent for this year.

Obama wants to spend $140 billion to rehire laid-off teachers, rebuild roads, airports, rail lines and schools. He also proposed extending unemployment benefits and offering tax credits for businesses that hire new workers, veterans and the long-term unemployed.

And before any Republican could label the package “stimulus two,” Obama said repeatedly that many of its components are tax breaks and initiatives that Republicans have supported in the past.

“There should be nothing controversial about this piece of legislation,” the president said. “Everything in here is the kind of proposal that’s been supported by both Democrats and Republicans — including many who sit here tonight.”

Obama put any failure to pass a jobs package squarely in the lap of his Republican colleagues — and that’s where it belongs.

If we’ve learned anything from this summer’s debt-ceiling fight, it’s that Republicans, led by their ideologically rigid Tea Party wing, are setting the terms of debate. Obama acknowledged that reality by crafting a plan loaded with bipartisan ideas.

The president has opened the door, and if Republicans fail to walk through it, American voters will know exactly whom to blame — though that clearly is not Obama’s goal.

“The next election is 14 months away,” he said. “And the people who sent us here — the people who hired us to work for them — they don’t have the luxury of waiting 14 months. . . . They need help and they need it now.”

Obama has shifted the nation’s focus and a sense of urgency to where it belongs: job creation. With 14 million Americans out of work and job growth at a standstill, Republicans cannot continue to be the Party of No.

We urge Obama to hold firm on the stimulus spending so long as he can deliver on his promise to pay for all that he has proposed. Most of the spending would occur in 2012.

Earlier stimulus spending has not produced the lower unemployment rate Obama promised, but jobless rates undoubtably would be much higher, particularly in the auto industry and the public sector, had the federal government not intervened.

History tells us that in times of fiscal crisis, targeted government spending — not government inaction or massive deregulation — is the best path forward.

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