WASHINGTON -- Among the jobs President Obama hopes to save with Thursday night's proposals to a Joint Session of Congress is his own.
There are no guarantees that the $447 billion American Jobs Act will be enacted, or that it would significantly reduce unemployment if it was. But the package of payroll tax relief, extended jobless benefits, and funding to repair schools, fix roads and keep teachers working at the minimum gives Obama a plan to extoll — and to batter a "do nothing" Congress with if it fails to act.
He exhorted Congress to "pass this jobs bill" or "pass it right away" 16 separate times. And he said the word "jobs" 37 times in 34 minutes.
The high-profile, high-risk address took place as the White House launches a re-election campaign in a political landscape loaded with landmines. The administration's own economists last week projected the unemployment rate, now 9.1%, would be 8.2% in the fall of 2012.
That would be the highest rate on any presidential Election Day since 1940.
"I've now gotten old enough so every new movie strikes me as a sequel, and this is beginning to feel a little like 1979 and 1980 to me," says Bill Galston, a former White House aide to President Clinton and veteran Democratic adviser who is now at the Brookings Institution. At that time, "the American people were coming to the conclusion that they would like to replace Jimmy Carter, if the Republicans presented a reasonable alternative to him, and then that was what the general election was about."
Of Obama, Galston says, "His presidency is in peril."
So the president strode through the House chamber and up the steps to the speaker's platform as members of the House and Senate stood and applauded. In a setting familiar from State of the Union addresses, Obama stood before an oversized American flag with Vice President Biden seated behind him to his right and House Speaker John Boehner to his left.
"Tonight we meet an an urgent time for our country," Obama began. "Those of us here tonight cannot solve all of our nation's woes. Ultimately, our recovery will be driven not by Washington but by our businesses and our workers. But we can help. We can make a difference. There are steps we can take right now to improve people's lives."
While he decried the partisanship and "political circus" he said had led to gridlock — and the electoral implications for 2012 as the obsession of reporters — the politics of the moment were hard to miss.
An hour or two before Obama spoke, his re-election campaign sent an e-mail to millions of supporters with the subject line "Before I head to the Capitol," urging them "to pressure Congress to act — or hold them accountable if they do not."
In the first lady's box in the House gallery, Michelle Obama was joined by two dozen labor leaders, business CEOs, small-business owners and others. They included three from Ohio and others from Iowa, North Carolina, Colorado and Florida — swing states all.
In a way, Obama was having a long-distance debate with the Republicans vying for the nomination to oppose him next year.
At a debate Wednesday night in the Reagan Library, the GOP field described Obama as a president who has failed, endorsing a conservative economic prescription of cuts in taxes, spending and regulations to boost the private sector. "I say the American people have had enough," former Utah governor Jon Huntsman declared. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney said Obama "doesn't have a clue how to get this country working again."
On Thursday, at a luncheon with reporters organized by the ChristianScience Monitor, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., was generally conciliatory toward Obama, saying there had been "enough rancor" and suggesting they could find common ground on issues such as temporarily cutting the payroll tax.
But the response from Republican members of Congress was dismissive or worse. Rep. Darrell Issa of California derided Obama's proposal as "Son of Stimulus" and Senate Republican Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona said the president had "dusted off a tired agenda of old ideas wrapped in freshly partisan rhetoric."
In the House chamber, Obama was alternately beseeching and demanding, acknowledging today's economic woes but striking an optimistic tone at the end about America's future. He quoted Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy.
His dilemma: The public's view of him, his leadership and his handling of the economy has soured, making it harder for him to convince Americans that he'll be able to enact his proposals — or that, if enacted, they would work.
After all, they have heard him talk about the issue before.
"Now is the time to jump-start job creation, restart lending and invest in areas like energy, health care and education that will grow our economy, even as we make hard choices to bring our deficit down," he has said. "It's an agenda that begins with jobs."
That was in his first speech to a Joint Session of Congress, in February 2009, when the unemployment rate was 8.1%.
"The speech is important but the follow-up is even more important," says Dan Glickman, a former Kansas congressman and Agriculture secretary in Clinton's administration. "There's a huge amount of economic anxiety out there and what's needed as much as anything is confidence-building right now."
Obama is scheduled to go to Richmond, Va., Friday. After participating in weekend commemorations of the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, he heads to Columbus, Ohio, next Tuesday to sell his plan.