Facing low approval ratings and constant Republican criticism as his re-election campaign starts up, President Barack Obama challenged Congress on Thursday night to put the good of the nation over political benefit and pass a huge jobs plan he proposed.
In a speech to a joint session of Congress, Obama told the legislators to "stop the political circus and actually do something to help the economy" by quickly approving the $447 billion package of measures so he can sign it into law.
"The people of this country work hard to meet their responsibilities. The question tonight is whether we'll meet ours," Obama said to applause. "The question is whether, in the face of an ongoing national crisis, we can stop the political circus and actually do something to help the economy. The question is whether we can restore some of the fairness and security that has defined this nation since our beginning."
Obama also told legislators that they should quickly pass his plan, called the American Jobs Act.
"There should be nothing controversial about this piece of legislation," the president said. "Everything in here is the kind of proposal that's been supported by both Democrats and Republicans -- including many who sit here tonight. And everything in this bill will be paid for. Everything."
Obama said he will ask Congress to increase the $1.5 trillion target in deficit reduction being pursued by a special joint congressional committee to cover the cost of the American Jobs Act. He said he will propose his own deficit-reduction plan on September 19 that would reform entitlement programs such as Medicare while changing the tax system to end loopholes, lower the corporate tax rate and increase taxes for the wealthy.
In essence, Obama resurrected his push for a so-called "grand bargain" -- a comprehensive deficit reduction package that includes all the drivers of government spending and deficits, including those traditionally favored and protected by both parties.
Republican reaction ranged from an expressed interest in trying to work out compromise to outright rejection and criticism of what was labeled a repeat of failed policies from the past.
House Speaker John Boehner, who backed out of talks with Obama on a major deficit reduction-deal deal earlier this year, said the proposals the president outlined "merit consideration," and added that he hoped for serious consideration by the White House of Republican ideas.
"It's my hope that we can work together to end the uncertainty facing families and small businesses, and create a better environment for long-term economic growth and private-sector job creation," said Boehner, R-Ohio.
Conservative Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Arizona, was much more critical. "President Obama, perhaps not knowing what else to do, is simply calling for more of the same, as if giving us more of the failed policies of the last two-and-a-half years will somehow yield different results," Kyl said in a statement. "I believe President Obama's new 'stimulus' will further delay economic recovery and continue to inflict harm on so many Americans."
According to Obama, the purpose of the proposed jobs legislation is "to put more people back to work and more money in the pockets of those who are working."
"It will create more jobs for construction workers, more jobs for teachers, more jobs for veterans, and more jobs for the long-term unemployed," Obama said. "It will provide a tax break for companies who hire new workers, and it will cut payroll taxes in half for every working American and every small business. It will provide a jolt to an economy that has stalled, and give companies confidence that if they invest and hire, there will be customers for their products and services. You should pass this jobs plan right away."
He also told Republicans he would take his case directly to the American people, and called on "every American who agrees to lift your voice and tell the people who are gathered here tonight that you want action now."
"Tell Washington that doing nothing is not an option," Obama said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told CNN that Obama will send Congress jobs plan legislation next week.
Obama's plan comes as unemployment remains lodged at 9.1% with no new jobs reported in August, raising fears of a possible return to recession. With 14 months to go until the presidential election, he wants the plan -- as well as the speech to Congress to present it -- to clearly illustrate to the American public the ideological differences between his policies and those of the Republican right.
The mood in the House chamber was jovial before the speech, with Vice President Joe Biden playfully hugging Speaker John Boehner when he arrived at the dais. Democratic legislators repeatedly applauded during the address.
House Republican and White House sources told CNN that Obama called Boehner and McConnell on Thursday afternoon to preview the speech. Even so, a legislative struggle is certain. Republicans call for corporate tax cuts and deregulation as steps to spur job growth, opposing what they label new stimulus spending.