WASHINGTON — Hawaii’s congressional delegates liked what they heard in President Barack Obama’s speech before Congress on Thursday night. But they also acknowledged that their approval doesn’t mean that the president’s $450 billion jobs plan stands a chance of passing in a fiercely divided Congress.
Look at the standing ovations Obama got. When the president talked about putting teachers back in the classroom where they belong, Democrats got to their feet and cheered. Republicans stayed seated. Some of them clapped politely.
When Obama talked about reforming Medicare, Republicans stood up to applaud the president. Just a scattered few Democrats joined them.
Democrats stood and clapped for a reference to jumpstarting transportation projects and helping those hit hard by foreclosures.
Republicans gave the president a standing ovation for references to free trade agreements.
The list goes on.
Civil Beat counted just a handful of times during the speech that both parties stood and cheered at the same time: First when Obama talked about making sure veterans have job opportunities when they return home from war, and then when he spoke of reducing the influence of lobbyists in Washington.
We weren’t the only ones to notice.
“What was interesting was I was taking note of when my colleagues rose and gave applause,” Rep. Colleen Hanabusa told Civil Beat in an interview right after the speech ended. “I thought that that was very interesting. It says a lot. Everyone seems to be on the same page on veterans, for example. They also rose on the whole idea of this is the greatest nation in the world and we need to regain it, and we need to build. The Medicare statement, the Republicans rose. Not so many Democrats rose.”
Hanabusa said she liked what the president said in his speech, but that the visible — and in this case audible — partisan gulf in Congress raises serious questions about whether his plan is realistic.
Sen. Daniel Akaka voiced similar concerns.
“I think it can pass in the Senate,” Akaka told Civil Beat in an interview after the speech. “Well, I question whether it can pass in the House.”
Even those who weren’t in the room, like a University of Hawaii economist who watched the speech from some 5,000 miles away, noticed the divide.
“The times where there seemed to be broad bipartisan support were limited,” said Byron Gangnes, an economics professor and the forecast director at the University of Hawaii’s Economic Research Organization. “Everybody got up and clapped for the veterans but… there were also an awful lot of times where Republicans were sitting on their hands.”
Obama has yet to reveal the complete details of his plan. He said he will next week offer specifics — namely, how the job plan will pay for itself — but some key themes emerged. Most of them were priorities that Obama has outlined before.
The president wants to invest in transportation infrastructure, extend unemployment insurance, reward businesses that hire workers who have been long seeking jobs, repair and modernize schools, reform Medicare, eliminate tax loopholes.
While it’s not clear what parts of the bill can actually pass in Congress — though the president urged lawmakers to “pass this bill” more than one dozen times — it is clear to Gangnes and the congressional delegates which elements would best benefit Hawaii.
“He targeted (helping) veterans, teachers and those who have been unemployed for a very long time,” Hanabusa said. “He said construction would pick up a lot of things. I’ve always thought nothing stimulates the economy like construction.”
Hanabusa also said she was heartened by the president’s commitment to improving infrastructure like airports, ports and roadways, which she called the state’s “lifeblood.” In an interview before the president’s speech, Rep. Mazie Hirono flagged infrastructure improvements as one of the key areas she hoped the president would emphasize.
“When we invest in infrastructure, that includes infrastructure for every state in our country,” Hirono said. “We’re way behind, billions and billions of dollars behind. Our roads, our bridges our water infrastructure, all could use resources.”
And while a boost to the construction industry and improvements to aging infrastructure would be huge for Hawaii, UH’s Gangnes says that the best jobs plan for Hawaii is one that helps the nation as a whole.
“Because of (Hawaii’s) dependence on tourism, we’re very dependent on families having optimism about their finances,” Gangnes said. “Having some confidence about their job security. I think that in some ways we’re more exposed than some other places in the country to cycles in optimism and pessimism. We have a big stake in whether the president and Congress can not just get something improved but the extent to which they can convince people that we’re on a road to recovery. Until we can do that, the prospects for tourism are pretty bleak.”
Bleak may also be the word to describe the extent to which Congress appears poised to work together, which is to say, not very. Even in the short statement Gov. Neil Abercrombie released after the speech, he pointed out the “division and discord” in Congress.
Asked whether it was fair for the president to put the onus on Congress for the lack of jobs progress thus far, Rep. Mazie Hirono was blunt.
“Congress is not monolithic as you know,” Hirono said. “It would be great if the Republicans could be as focused on job creation as we are.”
Optimism about the economy may well begin with optimism in Congress about what can be accomplished, and Sen. Daniel Inouye said in a statement released by his office that the president’s speech had given him “hope.”
Hanabusa, reflecting on the few shared standing ovations between Democrats and Republicans, gave optimism about Congress a not totally unconvincing shot.
“You look at when they rose, when everyone stood, and what it did give you an indication of, is that there are areas that we should be able to meet common ground on,” Hanabusa said. “There are areas we should be able to work toward.”