There’s a rare and genuine sense of hope in Washington tonight since nobody shouted “You Lie!” or walked out of the Barack Obama’s much anticipated jobs speech to a joint session of Congress. There was even slight praise from the Republican side that some of the proposals had “merit”. At last it might be political dysfunction, rather than the economy, than it is in decline in America.

Wonk-speak was banned from the unusually populist speech as the president abandoned his lofty style in favour of the language and disgust that Americans have for Washington right now. He calling out the Congress for hosting a “political circus” and claimed the unemployed shouldn’t have to wait another 14 months for politicians to take their responsibilities seriously.

Not once did he use words such as stimulus or infrastructure, but there is no denying that is what is on the table. $447 billion worth of stimulus if you include the tax cuts, transport infrastructure projects and subsidies for employing certain types of Americans like veterans and the long-term jobless.

Every cent will be paid for! None of it will be added to the already mind-blowing US deficit. Or so the White House communications office insisted with every breath today leading up to the speech. In reality the cost of the American Jobs Act will be added to the already $1.5 trillion in savings the bipartisan joint deficit super committee is tasked with finding by Thanksgiving. But, don’t worry, the hopelessly partisan gridlock will be solved this time because Obama will be offering his suggestions on Monday after next.

Actually, some worry may be warranted. His plan includes removal of some Bush-era tax cuts and subsidies accessible only to the very very wealthy. That’s something all the Republican members of the super committee have already ruled out.

But despite those concerns, the president’s openness to address excessive business regulation, Medicare and tax reform, and his primary focus on jobs rather than social safety nets netted him rare applause from the Republican side of the Congress.

Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner followed up with a statement saying several of the proposals merit consideration. In effect, saying he would allow some form of jobs legislation to pass before the next election. The implications of that gesture cannot be overstated when trenchant Republicans nearly brought the US to bankruptcy just last month.

There is still a wide divide between the two sides, on fundamental policy and politically with a presidential election looming. Conservatives, who claim the original GFC stimulus failed, have spent all week blasting the president’s plan, before any of it was known, accusing him of wanting to raise the corporate and highest margin individual tax rate. And they laid early groundwork to attack a popular tax cut they saw coming in the form of extending the payroll tax cuts for working class. The GOP instead prefers a cut to the corporate tax rate.

The GOP was worried about this speech. The president’s “favourable opinion” polling is the lowest since he’s been in office, despite Americans finding him likable as a person. Planted stories claimed Republican strategists would ease up, no need to “throw an anvil on him” while he’s doing so badly. All misdirect. There is little doubt he’ll get a sizable jump tomorrow, like he does after every speech. It won’t hurt that he’s promising American workers an extra $1500 in their pay-cheques next year. And he’s also stepping on what Republicans consider to be their territory.

When Obama looks out the White House front windows across Lafayette Square he sees an enormous banner over the US Chamber of Commerce’s DC headquarters that reads: “Jobs Jobs Jobs”. It is kind of hard to miss, and harder to dismiss. It was the issue that swept Republicans into the majority in congress last year. But for most of this term it’s been nothing but talk while unemployment numbers hovered at or above 9%. One in three unemployed Americans have been out of work for more than a year.

The GOP forewent the typical televised response to this presidential speech, believed to be for the first time. After the initial drama over who had the right to take up Wednesday’s air time — it went to the Republican presidential candidate debate — Obama was left to give his speech on Thursday, which happened to conflict with the opening game of the NFL season.

With Obama’s speech originally supposed to go for about 40 minutes plus applause delays, there wasn’t thought to be enough time for the GOP to have a response before the game started. Instead they decided to just give a written reply. However, the sneaky White House communications office’s final draft only went for just over 30 minutes including applause, leaving plenty of time for TV networks to give extra coverage of the president’s message and not the GOP’s. So the only responses you’ll see from the GOP are the likes of Michele Bachmann, probably unwise defence of Congress.

Tonight, Obama stepped up and took the jobs mantle away from Republicans.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey