Let’s make one thing clear – Nancy Pelosi deserved the high marks she got in Time’s Person of the Year balloting, far more than Ben Bernanke. She went to work and passed through the House every single element of the Democratic agenda articulated by President Obama during the campaign, and most of them are better than could be expected from a broken Congress – a progressive budget (if you dig into it, it’s actually pretty good), health care with a public option, financial reform that includes some decent measures, a climate bill (this is the worst of the lot, but she got it passed), student loan reform that completely ends the privatization and subsidization of student lenders and provides tens of billions in Pell Grants for college students, a good stimulus bill (before the Senate hacked away at it), and just yesterday, a jobs bill with an additional $155 billion in stimulus measures.

My objection to Nancy Pelosi is that she hasn’t been able to leverage these major victories rhetorically. Some of that is the fault of the Senate being the place where legislation goes to die, so everyone naturally turns their eye to them. Some of that is the fault of a media that is profoundly disinterested in policy. But some of that has to fall on the shoulders of Pelosi and her lieutenants for failing to cut through the ice and promote their handiwork.

Here’s what’s in the bill that was passed yesterday, almost under cover of darkness:

More infrastructure spending
The bill would provide $48.3 billion for infrastructure projects that promise to get workers back on job sites by April. Highway construction projects would get $27.5 billion, while subway, bus and other transit systems would get $8.4 billion.

Extends COBRA subsidy to 15 months

Extends unemployment benefits for six months (that expire at the end of the year).

Aid to states:
States would get $23 billion to pay 250,000 teacher salaries and repair school buildings, and $1.2 billion to pay for 5,500 police officers … $23.5 billion to help pay their share of federal healthcare programs for the poor.

This is all really necessary stuff that would save a lot of jobs, use the social safety net to stimulate consumer spending, and build tangible things that will create jobs and leave the structures behind for economic productivity. And it’s paid for with the savings from the TARP (though not directly; there’s a lot of confusion on that point).

What did it not include? Tax cuts for job creation, which is clearly a less stimulative measure, one that can be easily gamed by employers. Or any tax cuts, actually. Note the President’s message on this, through gritted teeth no doubt, that the bill “complements” his ideas like the tax break and “cash for caulkers”:

All over our country this holiday season, Americans who lost their jobs in the Great Recession are looking for work. Today the House answered with some productive ideas to respond to this great need, offering new initiatives including repairing our roads and bridges, providing relief to Americans who have lost their jobs and preventing layoffs at the state and local level.   They complement the proposals I made last week to buttress small businesses with new tax cuts and increased lending and provide incentives to consumers who retrofit their homes. Some may think standing by and taking no action is the right approach, but for the millions of Americans still out of work, inaction is unacceptable.

(I don’t remember Obama using “The Great Recession” before.)

There were, remarkably, a lot of “Democratic” defections on this bill, but ultimately, Pelosi found exactly the votes she needed to pass something to provide needed help, reduce unemployment and improve the Democratic public image. This is despite the deficit hawk mania on Capitol Hill – she nevertheless was able to get another bite of the apple on stimulus, which many didn’t expect. As Rep. Mike Capuano told his colleagues, Democrats are “screwed” if they don’t project a concern and a focus on jobs, and Pelosi managed to save the Blue Dogs from themselves on this one.

I just wish she told someone. There’s a major argument to be made at this time of runaway unemployment that Republicans absolutely don’t care about people. Eric Cantor made it himself before yesterday’s vote. Why isn’t that being highlighted more strongly? I think Americans would react very strongly to Republicans trying to take away benefits from the dirt-poor – and people who through the fault of macroeconomic factors but not their own abilities find themselves out of work and desperate – at Christmastime.

Pelosi and the House Democratic message machine is failing to make the arguments. But on the content, they’re as strong as can be expected.

David Dayen

David Dayen