I think Jon Chait gets this exactly right. The debate between moderate Democrats who want the president to propose initiatives that can pass Congress even if they don’t create jobs and liberal Democrats who want the president to propose initiatives that would create jobs even if they can’t pass Congress is nonsense.
If you’re going to propose things that can pass Congress and they create jobs, then I don’t think it matters whether or not they’re popular. The job creation will be rewarded. But if you’re going to pass something that can’t pass Congress, then it doesn’t matter at all whether it would hypothetically work, all that matters is that it polls well. And as Chait says, the things that Keynesian analysis suggests would create jobs — much larger budget deficits, higher inflation — are not popular things to campaign on. The smart move, if you’re just going to give a speech for speech’s sake, is to make the speech be full of nonsense bromides that voters like to hear. Except one problem President Obama will face is that for a “nonsense bromides” strategy to be maximally effective, it would be really useful for the entire progressive echo chamber to get really excited about his bromide agenda and start loudly insisting that the bromides would be super-successful in reducing unemployment if implemented. But Paul Krugman, Rachel Maddow, etc. won’t do that. A speech full of bromides will be disparaged as bromidish. These are the wages of the “hack gap,” the fact that the progressive media ecology is less leadable than the Conintern. Consequently, the president will probably try to split the difference in a way that leaves everyone unhappy and sniping at him from all directions.
Meanwhile, what he actually needs are measures that would boost the economy and don’t require congressional authorization.
But to understand just how screwed Obama is, you need to read Ed Glaeser’s criticisms of mass mortgage modifications. He goes on at great length about some flaws in the idea, and sort of breezily dismisses the need for economic stimulus in a couple of sentences that do nothing more than establish that this isn’t a particularly well-targeted form of stimulus. And yet is Glaeser volunteering to whip votes in the House to get a better-targeted, more-optimal stimulus through the GOP caucus? Of course not. But precisely the reaction you’ll get to any institutionally feasible stimulus at this point is that it’s a poorly targeted, inefficient desperation move. And in a sense, that’s true. The best time to get this right was back in 2009 when the White House had a much stronger hand.