Disgruntled liberals are looking to the president to use his bully pulpit Thursday night to force Republicans' hand on spending programs to boost job growth.
"We send a message to the president: Mr. President, in two days be bold. Hit it out of the park," House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra said Tuesday.
The call to arms by the California lawmaker, a member of the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction and of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, came at a briefing during which the party's top brass called on Obama to push for infrastructure spending and assistance for military veterans to help lower the nation's 9.1 percent unemployment rate. The leaders took advantage of the sleepy Tuesday before the House returned from a lengthy recess to begin their campaign for Thursday's speech.
"There's a lot that we can do, that Congress can do in a very short time," Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said.
Democratic skepticism, particularly among House liberals, reached a peak during last year's negotiations to extend the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts and more recently in July during negotiations to raise the debt limit.
The ensuing debt deal was dubbed a "sugar-coated Satan sandwich" by Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus.
"So he's got to inspire the legions of the unemployed to stand up and begin to growl about their conditions," the Missouri Democrat said Tuesday.
Cleaver joined the CBC's multi-city campaign last month to boost job growth among blacks but said he didn't expect to use similarly strong language to describe the jobs plan Obama will unveil Thursday.
"We're going into the joint session with a plan to support the president's proposals because we believe that they are going to be bold and grand," Cleaver said. "Members of Congress, including progressives, I think are convinced that the president is going to present a good but very strong proposal."
Still, that didn't stop members of the CBC, Hispanic Caucus, Asian Pacific American Caucus and Progressive Caucus from requesting a meeting with Obama ahead of Thursday's speech. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the lone Senator in the Progressive Caucus, went further in an interview by laying out what he wants to hear from his former Senate colleague.
"I want the president to let the American people know that he understands that the economic situation today is horrendous, and that while it was absolutely true that when [George W. Bush] left office we were losing 700,000 jobs per month ... he needs to demonstrate to the American public that the real, R-E-A-L unemployment rate now is more than 16 percent," Sanders said, referring to the number of unemployed Americans both actively looking for jobs and not.
Sanders, who also has been pushing for more disaster relief funds to his storm-ravaged state, said that he hoped Obama would be "bold" in laying out infrastructure and clean energy plans to make the U.S. economy more competitive and efficient in the long run and to employ more Americans now.
"The most effective way to deal with the deficit is to put American people back to work, to make taxpayers of them instead of having them on food stamps or receiving unemployment benefits," Sanders said.
White House officials have been reaching out to Congressional leaders in preparation for the speech before a joint session of Congress, but Members and aides offered few predictions of what Obama might put forward. Instead, they repeatedly called for "bold" proposals and, as one Senate Democratic aide described, "a contrast with Republicans as the party unwilling to put a dent in the unemployment problems for their own political gain."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) took to the floor Tuesday to lay out a lengthy wish list of legislation he'd like to see done in his chamber's three-week work period. He ended with a brief statement on Obama's speech, not laying down specifics but emphasizing the need to act soon to curb unemployment.
"It will be crucial for Congress to work together with the president to jump-start our flagging recovery," Reid said. "It won't be easy for Congress to tackle all the things this fall ... but it has never been more important than now to put out our jobs agenda ahead of either party's political agenda."
While some Democrats are skittish that Obama will lay out proposals that compromise their party principles, like his decision last week not to pursue new smog standards through the Environmental Protection Agency, they have trained more of their fire on Congressional Republicans and sought to get ahead of the jobs message on Tuesday in preparation for partisan brawls over the next few months.
Indeed, on Tuesday Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) called on Obama to consult with Congressional leaders on his agenda and touted their own jobs agenda that will dominate the floor this fall. Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took the floor to offer a sharp critique of the president's potential proposals, even though they have not yet been released.
"His central message evidently is that anyone who doesn't rubber-stamp his economic agenda is putting politics above country," McConnell said. "But with all due respect, Mr. President, there is a much simpler reason for opposing your economic proposals that has nothing whatsoever to do with politics, and it's this: They don't work."