WASHINGTON — Struggling to fix the sickly economy, President Barack Obama was appealing for support from a divided Congress Thursday night for a $300 billion battery of ideas to create jobs quickly and keep more cash in the pockets of dispirited Americans. His message to Republican lawmakers: This is your mess to clean up, too.
Obama's furious push on employment, his latest stab at the defining issue of his presidency, aimed to shore up his chances of keeping his own job next year. He must stem eroding confidence in his leadership as the public mood darkens and Republican presidential challengers assail his record.
In a nationally televised address to Congress, Obama was expected to announce a program of tax cuts, construction spending, unemployment aid and money for states. The core elements include extending the current reduction in the amount of Social Security payroll tax that workers pay, and expanding jobless benefits for those who can't find work month after month.
The cost was expected to be at least $300 billion, and perhaps more. Obama was to offer ways to pay for it without sinking the nation deeper in debt.
In the best case, such a package could provide help that people would feel in their daily lives. It would boost consumer and investor confidence and spur hiring.
Yet even that might not help the recovery enough to assuage the millions of unemployed, let alone satisfy voters.
And that's assuming Obama gets what he asks from Capitol Hill. His plan would require approval by a Congress that is deeply divided, with many House Republicans strongly opposed to his efforts.
To pay for his plan, Obama will challenge a new debt panel in Congress to go beyond its charge of identifying $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction, so the extra savings could offset the cost of short-term stimulus ideas. That panel met for a first time Thursday, members expressing determination but facing a demanding assignment.
Obama was expected to propose paying for some of his jobs initiatives by closing corporate tax loopholes and increasing taxes on wealthier Americans, measures he failed to win during summer negotiations over increasing the nation's debt ceiling.
Offsetting some costs of his economic plan with new tax revenue is likely to meet stiff resistance from Republicans. But the White House has argued that the public has supported a mix of spending cuts and revenue as a way to avoid higher deficits. White House Chief of Staff William Daley said before the speech that wealthy Americans "ought to pay a little more."
The American public is weary of talk and wary of promises that help is on the way.
About 14 million people are unemployed. There is just one job opening available for every four job seekers, on average, in the richest nation on earth.
In one striking sign of discontent, nearly 80 percent of people think the country is headed in the wrong direction. That's about the same level of pessimism as when Obama took office. It reflects both persistently high unemployment and disgust with Washington infighting.
No incumbent president in recent history has won re-election with the unemployment rate anywhere near the current level, 9.1 percent.
Writ large, Thursday night was about more than a speech or plan, suggesting whether the nation's leaders can agree on any ways to help a nation in economic peril.
Some Republican leaders, under their own pressure from constituents to get results, offered signs of compromise before Obama spoke.
"The American people want us to find common ground, and I'm going to be looking for it," House Speaker John Boehner told reporters.
The top Republican in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, wasn't so upbeat. He cast Obama's expected ideas as retreads, saying: "This isn't a jobs plan. It's a re-election plan."
Obama chose not just to give a speech but to convene Congress, allowing him to challenge House Republicans on their own turf. The strategy is to appeal to the lawmakers in front of him to pass a deal — and to try to show the voters watching at home, particularly independents, that he isn't the one to blame for inaction.
Republicans had no interest in lining up a formal response to Obama. At least a few of them were staying away altogether.
"Every time somebody skins their knee, his reaction is to hold a big speech," said Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., who planned to be back in his suburban Chicago district meeting with small-business owners. "He's cheapened the very notion of a joint session of Congress."
Boehner encouraged members of his party to attend.
The coming weeks could be the only window for bipartisan action on jobs before the 2012 presidential campaign swallows everything.
Obama took office in the midst of recession that began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009, costing America a staggering 7.5 million jobs. Even though many voters are spreading blame around, Obama owns the economy now and his political strategy of putting the onus on Congress holds risk.
If nothing comes of his jobs program and he tries to blame Congress, he will still be the most identifiable target for voter ire.
White House officials said Obama would formally send his plan — coined by the administration as the American Jobs Act — to Congress next week. The Democratic House leader, Nancy Pelosi, lobbied leaders of her caucus to push for legislative hearings and votes quickly.
Before he spoke, Obama got a tough preview from a member of his own party, Rep. Maxine Waters of California. She has been pressing Obama to pay more heed to the plight of black Americans, whose unemployment rate stands at 16.7 percent.
"There are roughly 3 million African Americans out of work today, a number nearly equal to the entire population of Iowa," Waters said. "I would suggest that if the entire population of Iowa, a key state on the electoral map and a place that served as a stop on the president's jobs bus tour were unemployed, they would be mentioned in the president's speech."
Associated Press writers Jim Kuhnhenn, Julie Pace, Christopher S. Rugaber, Larry Margasak and Ken Thomas contributed to this report.