President Obama’s jobs plan, which he outlined Thursday night in a televised speech to the nation, is more ambitious than many people might have predicted. It’s a $447 billion package including lots of tax cuts and some serious infrastructure spending, on things like rehabbing schools and rebuilding America’s decaying transport system. The question is whether it’s ambitious enough to really make a dent in unemployment, and how much of it will actually get passed by a Congress that is more politically polarized than it has been in over 80 years.
There were plenty of encouraging things about Obama’s speech. For starters, he was less professorial than usual, spoke in plain English, and got in a few pithy jabs at conservatives who have, for example, complained about things like, say, the earned income tax credit for working families, while refusing to raise taxes on the richest Americans. “I know some of you have sworn oaths to never raise any taxes on anyone for as long as you live,” said the President. “Now is not the time to carve out an exception and raise middle-class taxes, which is why you should pass this bill right away.”
(SPECIALS: Grading the Stimulus)
This isn’t to say that more partisan fist fighting is what’s required at a time when we are facing an economic emergency. (For a sense of the urgency I’m talking about, check out this fascinating chart book from the Council on Foreign Relations, which puts the current downturn in context with all others since the post war period. It makes for scary reading.) But it was refreshing to see Obama put a bit of distance between himself and his usual egghead approach to such issues. In order to get popular support for his ideas (and I happen to think most of his policy vectors, from infrastructure spending, to tax credits for small businesses, to an expansion of unemployment benefits, are the correct ones) he’ll need to appeal to the gut as well as the brain of the voting public.
The focus on tax cuts and infrastructure spending will make it hard for Republicans to dismiss the plan out of hand. It will be interesting to see if that holds true for the President’s deficit reduction proposals, which he’ll put forward a week from Monday. I’m hoping that in addition to a real conversation about sensible entitlement reform, which Obama touched on in Thursday’s speech, we’ll start having a real debate about why the richest Americans are paying lower tax rates than they have in decades—after all, it’s going to take both smart entitlement reform and common sense tax hikes (on the people who’ve benefited so wildly from the globalization that has made life hard for a lot of average Americans) to get the economy back on track. As the President said, when Warren Buffet pays taxes at a lower rate than his secretary does, there’s a serious problem with the social compact in our country.
Rana Foroohar is an assistant managing editor for TIME, overseeing business and economic coverage in print and online. She is also The Curious Capitalist columist for TIME magazine. You can continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.