Obama hands Republicans an opportunity — and they’re already blowing it

Barack Obama isn’t pivoting to jobs, he’s prepping for battle.

What does a president on a perpetual campaign to do when national disapproval rates start rising over 50 percent? He returns to Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., the site of a Lincoln-Douglas debate, and, even more impressively — as a near-breathless White House informed us – the place he delivered his first major economic address as a U.S. Senator.

elephant-ap_small2 Obama hands Republicans an opportunity — and they’re already blowing it

Despite media reports, however, Obama didn’t unveil any new plan to “move America forward,” and he certainly didn’t say anything historic. He fled to safer political ground, hitting themes we’ve heard for five years running. And why not? Evidence suggests that vacuous economic populism is a political winner these days. No doubt, Republicans have struggled to empathize with the anxieties of struggling middle and working class voters – on home ownership, on secure retirement, and on enhancing social mobility, we hear far too little.

That’s not to say that Obama offered a single new idea. Raise the minimum wage? Force banks to lend money easier? Subsidizing clean energy? Universal pre-school? “I’m going to challenge CEOs from some of America’s best companies to hire more Americans,” says our humble leader — because, evidently, CEOs want to stick to workers for the hell of it. Bold.

Whatever you make of these ideas in general, they are unserious policy prescriptions for a stagnant economy. If the president was earnest about moving forward, he could have offered some sort of regulatory slowdown, or reprieve for small businesses, or a pipeline even. Instead, the GOP was presented with a grab bag of progressive hobbyhorses that he knows well have no chance of going anywhere. And isn’t that the point?  Keep your heel on the throat of the obstructionists and win the politics of the day. The House and White House are ready to battle over the debt ceiling and budget and that’s all his speech was about.

So what do Republicans do? Obama quipped that repealing Obamacare and cutting spending isn’t an economic plan. Well, actually it’s as good an economic plan Obama produced. This year, over 830,000 Americans are new part-time workers and 97,000 fewer of them have full-time positions. Poll after poll finds that small business are cutting back or hiring fewer full time workers due to Obamacare.  Other polls show Obamacare’s popularity decreasing as implementation ratchets up. Broadly speaking he’s correct; there has to be more.

And Republicans offer no inspiring alternative. It is incomprehensible that the GOP hasn’t devised some palpable and bold 10-step economic plan (with some nifty title like “A Better Bargain”) that deals with crony capitalism, government overreach and economic growth. Even before the speech was given, Eric Cantor’s office was touting Republican alternatives to Obama’s non-plan. 1 – Urge the Democratic controlled Senate to join the House and Pass a Job Training Bill. 2 – Approve the Keystone Pipeline. 3 – Support the Bipartisan Effort to Expand Offshore Domestic Energy Production.

Seriously? That’s it? All fine ideas that won’t inspire many voters. Obama says things like “The basic bargain of this country says that if you work hard, you can get ahead — you can build a secure life for your family, and know that your kids will do even better someday” and all Republicans can think of is to demand that the Senate pass a jobs training program? It’s quite a feat to be staler than the president, but it seems the GOP is up for the challenge. A free-market economy made that bargain possible, not a government-funded solar panel plant. Most people probably still get it. Obama has presided – and in many ways extended — the worst recovery in American history. He’s out of ideas. Republicans aren’t going to get a better chance to make their economic case. If they ever bother coming up with one.