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19th September 2011

The Week in Washington: Obama’s jobs plan

President Obama’s flagship jobs plan could be his last chance to save a faltering presidency

It was a good speech. Statistics and real policy ideas combined almost seamlessly with folksy, if condescending rhetoric. Politicians from both parties and all parts of the country, however briefly, seemed united in applause for a President promising that he would get Americans back to work. Yet Barack Obama’s jobs plan may still not be enough to save his presidency.

Assuming that the bill is passed – which is by no means a certainty given the current political climate in Washington – the American Jobs Act will give more money to the unemployed and teachers; America’s decrepit ports, roads, airports and schools will be rebuilt; and tax cuts will be granted to both employer and employee as the 44th President desperately seeks to boost an ailing economy and his rapidly deteriorating presidency.

President Obama’s jobs plan would, for many Americans, be a welcome break from the austerity measures and budget cuts imposed on the United States by a Republican-controlled Congress. What’s more, any move to create jobs is likely to go down well in a country where the unemployment rate has been hovering at just under the 10% mark for almost two years.

Yet if Barack Obama believes that his jobs plan will give him a much-needed boost in his bid for re-election next year, he may be mistaken. Writing in The Guardian, Professor Richard Sennet of the London School of Economics made the point that ordinary Americans probably won’t feel the effects of Obama’s jobs plan for quite a few years, if the stimulus bill of January 2009 is anything to go by.

Furthermore, there are doubts – from both sides of the political spectrum – over whether or not the policy will actually work. Republican presidential hopefuls Rick Perry, Mitt Romney and Michelle Bachmann have all, predictably, poured scorn over the jobs plan. Meanwhile, liberal political commentator Cenk Uygur derided Obama for suggesting that both Medicare and Medicaid (government funded healthcare programmes for the poor and the elderly, respectively) would face cuts as part of this latest proposal. Perhaps most worryingly of all, top economists including the University of Manchester’s very own Jospeh Stiglitz have suggested that, despite the package being worth around $450 billion, it may simply be too small a stimulus to provide a tangible boost to the economy.

To compound this, observers are sceptical as to whether the President holds sufficient political capital to push such controversial legislation through a Congress controlled by fiercely partisan Republicans who will stop at nothing to prevent Obama from winning a second term. At the time of writing, Obama’s approval rating stands at a dismal 43%, with 49% of Americans disapproving of his three-year track record. With economic growth nudging just 2% and unemployment and poverty rates on the rise, a meagre 26% of the electorate approve of Obama’s handling of the economy.

In short, the President finds himself as the unpopular commander-in-chief of a miserable nation with a tanking economy. Even if the ‘American Jobs Act’ is passed and the economy gets moving again, any challenger for the presidency in 2012 has a realistic chance of wiping the floor with him.

Yet this is by no means certain. Indeed, the most startling thing about American politics right now is that despite Obama’s apparent weakness, the Republican Party appears to lack a truly credible candidate capable of defeating him outright. Tea Party favourite Michelle Bachmann looks to have made one gaffe too many after her comment that Hurricane Irene may have been the act of a God angered by government overspend; she now seems unlikely to win the Republican nomination. Despite her tremendous appeal to the Republican grass roots, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is simply too divisive amongst the majority of ordinary Americans to even consider running for the presidency this time around.

That seemingly leaves Rick Perry, an evangelical Christian and former Governor of Texas, and multi-millionaire businessman-turned-politician Mitt Romney – two men who, according to Daily Show host Jon Stewart, have the appearance of actors in “those middle-aged-male-kayaker-with-prostate-problems advertisements” – as the only feasible challengers to Barack Obama in 2012.

As was the case four years ago, the Republican field looks decidedly weak, and the lack of a stand-out GOP candidate must give the Democrats hope that their man will not be a one term president. Yet with a disillusioned Democratic base, an economy in freefall and few substantial policy victories to look back on, it could be President Obama’s jobs plan that will ultimately decide his fate in 2012.

Joe Sandler Clarke

Joe Sandler Clarke

Joe Sandler Clarke is the head of student media at the University of Manchester. He was longlisted for Amnesty International’s Student Human Rights Reporter of the Year in 2012. He was a News Editor at The Mancunion in the year 2011-12

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