The discord between Democrats and Republicans regarding the three-month extension of unemployment benefits will be used by the Democrats for political fodder against the Republicans, if Republicans let them.
The mid-term elections during a president's second term tend to be tough on the president's party. Additionally, Obama's approval rating tanked in December to 40 percent as the rollout of his signature health plan foundered. With the recent passage of a bipartisan budget bill, the need for a diversion -- a new target to focus political operatives and therefore voters -- is key.
President Barack Obama laid out his 2014 agenda during his address on Jan. 4, but also provided insight into the Democratic campaign plan for the 2014 mid-term elections this fall.
Republicans: mean and cruel, Democrats: good.
"Just a few days after Christmas, more than one million of our fellow Americans lost a vital economic lifeline," he said in reference to the expiration of emergency additional federal unemployment compensation for those unemployed for more than 26 weeks.
Obama conjured images of parents trying to make ends meet, and cited facts from the Congressional Budget Office about the potential "drag on our economic growth."
Obama drew a line in the ground: "Right now, a bipartisan group in Congress is working on a three-month extension of unemployment insurance -- and if they pass it, I will sign it," he said.
He left unsaid the hope among some Democrats that the Republicans would block the extension and could therefore be called cruel and heartless for the balance of the year.
The political messaging in Obama's address was clear: "Republicans in Congress went home for the holidays and let that lifeline expire," Republicans are "punishing families who can least afford it," are "just plain cruel," and "are willing to abandon the American people."
All that is far different from the message Obama projected about himself and his allies, who "don't abandon our fellow Americans when times get tough -- we keep the faith with them until they start that new job."
This false construct was cracked on Tuesday of this week when Senate Democrats moved forward on the three-month extension -- with the help of six Republicans and with a news release from Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Boehner embraced working on "another extension of temporary emergency unemployment benefits," but said they "should not only be paid for, but include something to help put people back to work."
Republicans: "nice, helpful," was the message.
The facts are there: according to Boehner's website, "'Emergency Unemployment Compensation' program is put in place only in the worst economic conditions and is designed to be temporary ... the recent program ... was in place longer (66 months), was extended more times (12), aided more people (24 million), cost more ($265 billion) and added more to the debt ($210 billion) than any previous program. ... the vital safety net that provides all eligible unemployed workers 26 weeks of benefits" is still in place.
Republicans should aggressively back temporary additional unemployment benefits, make sure they're paid for, and tie them to job training and tax breaks for job creation. What's really needed, as Obama says, is more jobs, and additional unemployment compensation does not provide jobs, just money.
To be successful, the Republican argument this fall has to be about more than facts and figures; it has to include emotion as well and be phrased in a positive manner.
Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, links a person's happiness to "the belief that you've created value in your life and value in the lives of other people. When people say that they have earned their success, they become much happier than their neighbors, friends, and families."
But we need to do more to communicate emotionally, linking policy to people.
We are for a program that provides support for the long-term unemployed, but also encourages skills training and job creation while not adding to the debt. Such a program would allow a single mother, who has recently learned new skills, to be hired by a small company that can afford to hire her because of tax breaks. She can now explain to her son how she helps others in her job and earns money for their family.
Now that's a message Republicans should communicate all year long.