President Obama faced a choice as summer recess drew to its close. As recounted in the Times, some of his advisers wanted him to strike a new tone on the economy: To call for an ambitious investment in our country and stake out a position that sharply contrasted the Democratic economic vision with that of the Republicans. That approach would have set the stage for the next election but would have been less likely to see results in the form of Congressional action.
The other camp wanted small-bore proposals that could win bipartisan support and thus gain passage in Washington. They would blur the differences between a progressive and conservative economic agenda in the hope of winning wider acclaim. And while they would not solve our unemployment crisis, they would show the American people that Washington can work.
Last night, President Obama showed us which path he chose with a series of smart, modest proposals that had already had past support from Republicans and Democrats, contained compromises between Big Business and labor and threaded through conservative and progressive philosophies.
As he repeatedly called to "pass the bill now," he was talking about a plan that will make some difference to regular Americans but is unlikely to have significant impact on unemployment immediately. However, in his view that the American Jobs Act could become law quickly, the president is betting on another goal: that legislative action will show the whole country that Congress can work - a demonstration that could revive the hope and confidence our economy needs.
At least that's the president's wish. Of course, in the past his efforts to pull in GOP ideas have not necessarily pulled in GOP support. The healthcare plan was full of elements Republicans had championed before, but turned against as the Democrats pursued them.
Cap-and-trade was a Republican alternative to the more progressive carbon tax until Democrats embraced it and the GOP backed away. If the Republican leadership continues to cherish its established priority of denying the President any victories, the Obama team can include as many conservative ideas as they'd like and we'll still see Lucy pull the football away from Charlie Brown in the end.
On the other hand, if the GOP realizes Washington's record-setting unpopularity will hurt them and not just the president, maybe they'll see this as an opportunity. Take credit for the conservative ideas the president embraced. Acknowledge that in tough times some action is better than none. Approve this package - and see your numbers go up.
Then there is the Democrats, especially the progressive wing, who have to decide if they can stomach more of the "compromises" they've made all year - taking five steps forward just to see their bargaining partners move two back.
They'd have every reason to demand bolder action - they see from the example of the Tea Party that when you make demands, you get your way. But already, early responses have suggested that some of the president's critics from the left are ready to sign on to the American Jobs Act.
Because partisan positioning aside, the president made one irrefutable point last night. We can stake out sharply contrasting positions and let the electorate decide at the ballot box. But that will only ensure 14 months of no relief for working families and the unemployed.
At this point, any action is better than none.
"I don’t pretend that this plan will solve all our problems," declared President Obama toward the end of his address. "It shouldn’t be, nor will it be, the last plan of action we propose."
It would be exciting to imagine a world in which Congress, having passed this modest and agreeable set of proposals, got hooked on the taste of accomplishment and started proposing more creative, innovative steps. It would be thrilling to have too many jobs plans to choose from, rather than too few.
At this point, it would also just be an improvement for everyone to acknowledge that Americans are feeling the pain and our government's job is to help alleviate that pain. That seems the president's goal in his strategy of small, quick ideas rather than the big fight. I had personally wanted a bold, dynamic jobs bill that changed the debate, galvanized the public and created a WPA for the 21st century.
And I hope that the Democrats still present that as their approach in the election. But we're between elections now - and maybe small accomplishments are better than big stalemates. At least that's the President's belief, and I hope he's proven right.
His speech signaled that Democrats are ready to compromise and to act, to make progress in the chambers of Congress and to save bigger questions for campaign.
GOP, it's your turn.
Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."