Obama's Shame Offensive on Unemployment Insurance

President Obama speaks about extending emergency unemployment insurance on Jan. 7 Photograph by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The main reason President Obama and the Democrats can’t get more legislation through Congress is because Republicans control the House of Representatives, oppose most of what Democrats want to do, and are more or less impervious to public opinion. Often, the only power Obama has is the power to shame—and that usually doesn’t work.

Surprisingly, though, it was effective today. Late this morning, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) held a vote on the “motion to proceed” to a bill that would extend federal emergency unemployment compensation for three months—a vote that basically functioned as a test to see if there were enough support to break a Republican filibuster. Reid and everybody else thought there wouldn’t be.

But there was. Six Republicans voted to break the filibuster, and the bill advanced by a 60-37 vote. Because the Senate is slooooow, there will now be 30 hours of debate before an actual vote is held on the bill itself. What caused this unexpected turn of events? You could argue—as I have—that the weak labor market, the potential economic damage of cutting off benefits, and the example of North Carolina all support extending the program. Maybe those six Republicans were persuaded by this evidence. (Which, incidentally, has persuaded a number of smart conservatives.).
I suspect, however, that what persuaded most of them was what I’ll call the “shame offensive”—the Democrats’ coordinated effort, underway for about two or three weeks now, to paint Republicans opposed to the extension as heartless monsters who care nothing for struggling jobless workers and their families.

What do you know? All those calls for Obama to “lead” and use the power of the bully pulpit to bend Republicans to his will were sort of vindicated, at least in this instance.

Still, there’s a reason why the bully pulpit can’t accomplish much, and we were quickly reminded of it: House Republicans. They appear to be immune from presidential shaming. Here’s a statement from House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) after today’s vote, shooting the Senate bill to pieces:

One month ago I personally told the White House that another extension of temporary emergency unemployment benefits should not only be paid for but include something to help put people back to work. To date, the president has offered no such plan. If he does, I’ll be happy to discuss it, but right now the House is going to remain focused on growing the economy and giving America’s unemployed the independence that only comes from finding a good job.

In other words, the Senate bill, if it passes, is dead on arrival, like most bills sent to the House.

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