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The Outside Game Begins

Two years and one very long summer into the Obama presidency, many progressives have gotten tired of watching their would-be hero trying to appease the Republicans. On Thursday night, Obama made it clear he’s tired of it, too.

In one what was certainly his most impassioned -- and maybe even his most consequential -- speech since taking office, he proposed something bold and specific, demanded that Congress pass it, and promised to take his case directly to the people. As Greg Sargent noted, "The tone of urgency bordered on overkill — which is a good thing. ... Aides had promised he would challenge, rather than beseech, Congress to act. That turned out to be an understatement."

Indeed, the message seemed clear. The inside game is over. The outside game begins now.

And not a moment too soon. The president and his advisers think critics on the left (including, sometimes, me) don’t give the administration enough credit – that they fail to appreciate how much he’s accomplished and how difficult the obstacles to change have been. But at this point, at least, they seem to read the political landscape the way most of their supporters do: The Republicans have no interest in finding common ground. “I think the president felt liberated by his experience with [House Speaker John] Boehner in the summer,” one senior adviser said on Thursday, noting that the American Jobs Act “didn’t stint on good policy ideas" just to make it acceptable to the other side.

That’s true, by the way. The proposal isn’t exactly what any expert would recommend for fixing the economy, in part because even relatively like-minded experts have some different notions about which initiatives work best. But virtually every mainstream economist I’ve seen or read in the past twelve hours thinks the plan has enough good ideas to reduce unemployment significantly.

And in a normal political world, it would actually have a chance of passing, because most of the ideas have a genuinely bipartisan pedigree. The infrastructure bank proposal, for example, comes straight from a bill co-sponsored by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, the Republican from Texas. The single biggest element of the proposal is a payroll tax cut, which Republicans have historically supported.

Of course, Republicans have already indicated they may not support it this time around. Which brings us to the real issue here: What now? Most seasoned observers doubt meaningful legislation can pass. I'm not quite so sure. Republicans, particularly in the House, may have some extreme views on the economy. And they may be determined to oppose anything that Obama endorses. But they still have to win elections next year. And they may already be feeling some pressure to relent.

After this speech, House Speaker John Boehner issued a statement indicating that Obama’s proposals “merit consideration.” No, that doesn’t mean he, or his party, intends to give the proposal consideration. (Republicans were simultaneously blasting it as more “failed stimulus,” after all.) But it does mean they feel compelled to pretend they will. And that means they might eventually feel compelled to vote for something – not as ambitious as the president proposed, for sure, but something that could still make some difference in the economy.

And if they don’t? Then Obama has at least given the public a clear sense of who stands for what. And make no mistake: That’s a worthwhile endeavor. The approaching presidential election will offer voters stark choices about the country’s future. The best thing Obama can do – not only for the sake of his own candidacy but for the sake of the public discourse – is to make sure the voters understand those choices.

But it will take more than one speech. It will take a sustained campaign – one Obama cannot wage alone, but one only he can lead. As a senior Democrat on Capitol Hill told TNR last night, “It was a strong speech. It’s what comes next that matters. Will he stay tough and keep hammering the Republicans, or will he go back to staying 'above the fray' "?