This is actually kind of an amusing story from Obama’s meeting with a bipartisan group of lawmakers about his job creation package:

President Barack Obama challenged congressional Republicans to back up their criticism of his economic recovery plans with academic expertise, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told reporters Wednesday.

Speaking at the White House following the president’s morning discussion on job creation with bipartisan congressional leaders, Cantor said Obama defended his agenda against criticism that it was too expensive.

“He challenged us to bring in economists to say we ought not be spending right now,” said Cantor, who characterized the talks as “cordial” and “more in-depth than usual.”

I would like to see that list of economists. The guy who wrote “Dow 36,000” and some new economist named Schmupert Schmurdoch would no doubt be on the list.

If this is bipartisanship, then it’s bipartisanship I can believe in.

The problem is, as usual, that the President has potentially pre-compromised his original plan, creating a too-small plan that may not create the kind of jobs necessary to reverse the unemployment trend or bring back jobs at the proper rate, and from a political standpoint, that would be more damaging than no bill at all.

Obama surely knows that there is no legitimate academic research that we should freeze discretionary spending when unemployment is in the double digits. But he has the opportunity, as Harold Meyerson noted today, to actually create something tangible for Americans.

In putting forth a second stimulus, the administration is acknowledging the limits (while not disputing the necessity) of the top-down economic revival strategy that Congress and the Bush administration adopted by enacting TARP — chiefly, a program to aid major banks — last fall. The Obama White House has made the same discovery that Franklin Roosevelt’s White House made 75 years ago: that propping up banks is not sufficient to get the economy moving again so long as banks look at a deeply beleaguered economy and see nothing but a sea of risk […]

That’s why the nation needs a public jobs program in addition to a policy of helping small businesses grow again. The infrastructure investments Obama proposed will go part of the way toward meeting that goal, but specific programs of public employment, such as those created by Franklin Roosevelt and that notorious radical Richard Nixon (who signed into law the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, or CETA) are needed as well. Roosevelt in particular understood that major infrastructure projects took time and a major investment in materials, which is why he established two programs in the depths of the Depression: the Public Works Administration (PWA) for projects such as the construction of the Bonneville Dam, and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) for more labor-intensive projects that were quicker to get up and running. He directed more than five times as much funding to the WPA as he did to the PWA, for the simple reason that Americans were clamoring for work and the private sector wasn’t generating any.

When Roosevelt became president in 1933, he brought with him plans that progressives had developed over the preceding 30 years for public power and social insurance. When it came to public jobs, however, FDR was improvising — progressives hadn’t envisioned the Depression or how to deal with it. Obama entered office with a similar disconnect: His dance card was filled with health-care reform and climate-change legislation, but nobody had planned for how to deal with the most severe downturn since the 1930s. Roosevelt showed his mettle as a great political leader by pivoting to remedy mass unemployment. This is Obama’s turn to do the same.

Obama gave himself an out to go further, but he needs to do so without delay. There is no such thing as doing too much in this kind of crisis.

David Dayen

David Dayen

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