President Barack Obama is shifting his administration's emphasis to battling unemployment, the scourge that is hurting households nationwide and threatening to inflict heavy losses on Democrats in November's elections.
In the process, he and his allies in Congress intend to force Republicans, through a series of upcoming votes, to choose between Wall Street's high fliers and Main Street's middle-class workers. With Democrats struggling to deliver on big promises such as overhauling health care, they hope their increasingly populist tone —coupled with Republican resistance to Democrats' budget-cutting proposals— will prevent wavering voters from drifting to the GOP.
The White House has pushed a job-creation agenda for months. But it wasn't supposed to reign as the top priority until Democrats achieved their much-touted health care revisions.
That trouble-plagued campaign still drags on, however, leaving Obama little choice but to make it clear that creating jobs is his chief concern.
The shift in focus is not necessarily a death knell for the health care push. House and Senate Democratic leaders are trying to persuade colleagues to pass the contentious package despite fierce GOP opposition and polls that show substantial public dislike.
For now, at least, the legislative leaders seem content for Obama to remain fairly quiet while they work behind closed doors. If they can move the health care package close to the finish line in the next few weeks, they may call on him to buttonhole enough lawmakers for a final push.
That gives Obama leeway to focus heavily on trying to whittle down the nation's 10 percent unemployment rate. In Wednesday's State of the Union address, he declared, "Jobs must be our No. 1 focus in 2010." On Friday he rolled out details of a $33 billion, one-year tax incentive plan to encourage more hiring.
White House senior adviser David Axelrod said in an interview that the administration also hopes Congress will approve a new stimulus bill in the next couple of weeks. The other most immediate priorities, he said, are votes on a bailout fee on big banks and a financial reform package, including a new consumer finance agency.
Congressional Republicans have opposed these and other proposals, saying Obama wants to slap stifling regulations on the nation's still-struggling financial sector.
Some Democrats view the GOP stance as a policy and political miscalculation.
White House officials and Democratic lawmakers described a strategy to put Republicans on the spot by scheduling regular votes on jobs, financial regulation and other matters that fall in line with the Democrats' populist message.
The strategy is meant to put Republicans in a box. They can vote with Democrats on items such as imposing a fee on big banks that received public bailout money. Or they can oppose such measures and risk being painted as protectors of big banks and stock traders rather than working-class Americans.
Many congressional Republicans, riding high after their stunning victory in the Jan. 19 Massachusetts Senate race, think the Democrats' strategy won't work. They appear almost united in their willingness to oppose Democrats on numerous measures that arguably might appeal to the public, calling them irresponsible, unworkable or overly intrusive.
Senate Republicans recently helped kill a proposed bipartisan commission meant to reduce the deficit, even though some originally had embraced it.
They also unanimously opposed an increase in the allowable level of federal borrowing. The measure, which Democrats passed on a party-line vote, includes requirements that the government pay up front for many new programs rather than finance them through borrowing. Republicans say the pay-as-you-go plan encourages higher taxes.
Many House Republicans, meanwhile, criticized Obama's call Friday for a $5,000 tax credit for each new worker hired this year, capped at $500,000 per employer. They said previous efforts proved ineffective.
Axelrod said the White House and the Democratic-controlled Congress will keep pushing such proposals and keep highlighting Republicans' opposition.
"It's hard to understand why they would not be for it," he said. "They're going to have to decide."
Obama himself hinted at the strategy in a recent interview with Time magazine.
"It'll be interesting to see how some, who have tried to exploit legitimate anger at the big banks this year by trying to put it on us, are going to position themselves — whether in fact they're going to want to protect all these financial institutions from the regulations that will prevent the kind of disaster that we've seen over the past couple of years," Obama said.
"They're going to have to vote yea or nay, aren't they?" the reporter said.
"Right," said the president.
Both parties have made some nods at bipartisanship in recent days. But chances for meaningful accords before the November elections seem remote.
Obama and House Republicans engaged in a freewheeling exchange Friday in Baltimore, but the most energetic portions involved each side sharply defending its positions and pointedly criticizing the others'.
House GOP leader John Boehner of Ohio thanked Obama for coming. A short time later he issued a lengthy, point-by-point rebuttal of the president's comments, under the headline, "President Obama repeats discredited talking points during dialogue with House GOP."
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