WASHINGTON — A combative President Barack Obama challenged a divided Congress on Thursday to unite behind his jobs bill or get ready to be run “out of town” by angry voters. Hoping to use public frustration and economic worry as leverage, he called his proposal an insurance plan against a painful return to recession.
In a news conference long on restatements of his ideas, Obama laid bare the dynamic that now is Washington: The era of compromise is over.
Frustrated over getting nowhere with Republicans, Obama demanded that they explain themselves to the country and promised to keep “hammering way until something gets done.”
Despite Obama’s taunts, Republicans showed no signs of switching positions. Instead, they pressed for a symbolic vote so they could oppose the bill the president submitted three weeks ago. They also predicted they would prevail next week when Democrats try to advance a reworked version, which Obama supports, with a tax on millionaires.
Speaking at a forum just about the same time as Obama, House Speaker John Boehner said the president had decided to “give up on governing, give up on leading.” Said Boehner: “We’re legislating. He’s campaigning.”
Obama’s news conference marked a continuation of his recent feistiness, and his party’s pre-election-year attempt to depict Republicans as protectors of the rich at the expense of the jobless. Obama plans to keep it up through his campaign as he seeks a second term amid persistently high unemployment.
Lamenting political gamesmanship, Obama defended his own tactic of campaigning for a jobs bill that appears to have no chance of passing as it is. When asked about his willingness to negotiate to help the millions of unemployed, he said he had gone out of his way every time with Republicans, to little avail.
“The question, then, is, will Congress do something?” the president said. “If Congress does something, then I can’t run against a do-nothing Congress. If Congress does nothing, then it’s not a matter of me running against them. I think the American people will run them out of town, because they are frustrated.”
Obama conceded that voters have grown deeply exasperated and cynical, and he put the responsibility largely on Congress as unresponsive to public opinion. At one point Obama even told his media questioners to accept a “little homework assignment” and “go ask Republicans what their jobs plan is.”
The political positioning came with the American economy weakening and at a risk of sinking as a consequence of Europe’s debt crisis. Nearly one-third of the unemployed people in the United States — almost 4.5 million people — have been out of work for a year or more.
Obama would not say whether he agreed with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s warning this week that the economic recovery “is close to faltering.” The president said the country stands to face deeper problems without action, particularly if a payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits are not extended.
He has presented a $447 billion plan to jolt the economy by cutting taxes and increasing spending on schools, roads and other public projects. He has proposed covering the cost of that, and therefore avoiding another pile of public debt, in part by raising taxes on wealthier people and corporations.
It is likely Congress will eventually pass Obama’s proposal to extend and expand the Social Security payroll tax cuts that took effect on Jan. 1, the costliest part of the overall jobs plan. Other elements could also clear Congress by the end of the year, including a renewal of unemployment benefits.
Yet Republicans strongly oppose Obama’s proposed spending and also are against raising taxes — on anyone. Giving a bit of ground on his own plan, Obama endorsed a new proposal by Senate Democrats to tax millionaires — not households making $250,000 or more — to pay for his jobs program.
“If the goal is to create jobs, then why are we even talking about tax hikes?” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Republicans also shrugged off Obama’s complaints that they have not explained their opposition or proposed alternatives, saying they had done both.
About 392,000 households would get hit by the Senate Democrats’ proposed 5.6 percent tax on income above $1 million, according to an analysis by the Tax Policy Center, a Washington think tank. In 2013, the first year the tax would take effect, those households would see their taxes increase by an average of $110,500, according to the analysis.
Obama’s session with reporters centered on economic themes.
He was also pressed to defend his administration’s handling of two matters: a multimillion-dollar federal loan guarantee to a solar company that now has declared bankruptcy, and a Justice Department program aimed at building cases against major weapons traffickers in Mexico that lost track of numerous guns.
The president said his jobs bill could guard against another economic downturn if the situation in debt-laden Europe worsens. Ramping up his language, Obama called his plan “an insurance policy against a possible double-dip recession.”
The overarching theme of Obama’s news conference was frustration — on the part of Americans with Washington, and on his part with Congress. It fit with his campaign of late as he moves around the country raising money for his re-election and promoting his jobs plan on the home turf of Republican foes.
“We have a democracy, and right now John Boehner is the speaker of the House and Mitch McConnell is the Republican leader” in the Senate, Obama said. “And, you know, all I can do is make the best arguments and mobilize the American people so that they’re responsive.”