Obama touts new stimulus

President Barack Obama speaking outside GM HQ in Detroit, 5 Sept 2011 Image copyright AFP

As the world's economy looks ever more precarious, all eyes will be on Obama this week. He's making his big pitch to Congress on Thursday. He'll be setting out how to get America back to work. My guess is that there'll be a lot more politics than economics. He may well believe the measures he'll suggest are the right ones. But it's a dime to a dollar the Republican House will reject most of them.

Why ? The president made it pretty clear in a Labor Day speech in Detroit that he's looking for some sort of new stimulus package. He said:

"We've got roads and bridges across this country that need rebuilding. We've got private companies with the equipment and the manpower to do the building. We've got more than 1 million unemployed construction workers ready to get dirty right now. There is work to be done and there are workers ready to do it. Labour is on board. Business is on board. We just need Congress to get on board. Let's put America back to work."

Obama is bound to come up with some measures that can be portrayed as appealing to Republicans. Doubtless last week's scrapping of proposed anti-pollution measures will be portrayed as one of those.

But there's little doubt he's preparing to "run against Congress", expecting them to vote down most of his ideas. He's prepared to portray them as the wreckers, the people blocking recovery. He lavished praise on the unions in his speech and then told the audience in Detroit:

"We're going to see if we've got some straight shooters in Congress. We're going to see if congressional Republicans will put country before party. We'll give them a plan, and then we'll say, 'Do you want to create jobs? Then put our construction workers back to work rebuilding America.'"

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Truman made his own Labor Day appeal, but he had an advantage Obama lacks

In one way, it is a canny, indeed obvious strategy. Nobody is more unpopular in America that politicians in Congress. It is not hard to portray their shenanigans as childish and uncaring. It is also true that if you like what Obama has done, then it is the Republicans in the House who are stopping him doing more of it.

But Obama's spending to crank up the economy was not popular. You could argue that as the money ran out things have got worse. It is at least an irony that last week's dreadful figures, net zero jobs growth in August, were so bad because the gains in jobs in the private sector were wiped out by cutbacks in the public sector. All the same, the American public does not seem to be clamouring for more Government spending.

The president said that on the flight to Detroit a senator had shown him a Labor Day speech made by Harry Truman in 1948. It too praised the unions as vital for a decent prosperous America and warned about Republicans. It is the speech where he warned of the Republican reactionary in Congress "with a calculating machine where his heart ought to be" .Truman was well behind in the polls but came from behind to win an election victory later that year. For him, running against Congress worked rather well.

But Truman could point to FDR's achievement: "You all remember how a Democratic administration turned the greatest depression in history into the most prosperous era the country has ever seen."

The problem is Obama can scarcely say the same of his own administration.