Eye on 2012, Jindal rejects Obama dole

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By K.P. NAYAR in Washington
  • Published 21.02.09

Washington, Feb. 21: Indian American Bobby Jindal has become the first Republican governor in the US to turn down nearly $100 million that his state of Louisiana would have got in help for the unemployed from President Barack Obama’s $787-billion economic stimulus package.

In doing so, Jindal may be taking the tentative first steps to position himself as a potential Republican candidate to challenge Obama for the White House in 2012.

The Republican Party last week picked Jindal to deliver its response to Obama’s first speech to a joint session of the US Congress next Tuesday, in which the President is expected to do some plain-speaking about the state of the country.

This will be the first time that Jindal will command a national audience during prime time on TV and the Internet, making him a shadow President at least for one night.

He was to have been a prime time speaker at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul in September last year, that nominated the party’s presidential candidate, but he could not attend the convention because of a hurricane that ravaged Louisiana then.

Jindal’s ability to emerge as a potential alternative to Obama will very much depend on his performance on Tuesday. He will also appear on at least one popular national TV talk show on Sunday.

The Republicans are sharply divided on their approach to Obama’s efforts to salvage the US economy and White House steps that appear to eventually head along the road to nationalisation of at least some banks in America.

Florida’s Republican governor Charlie Crist, unlike Jindal, has not only backed Obama but also appeared with the President in public, taking the view that “this is not about partisan politics. It is about rising above that, helping the American people and re-igniting our economy.”

Three other Republican governors, California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, Connecticut’s Jodi Rell and Vermont’s Jim Douglas are also supporting Obama’s stimulus plan.

At least six Republican governors are expected to turn down money from Washington, but Jindal has stolen a march over the rejectionists by being the first among them to say so.

In rejecting a big chunk of the stimulus money, Jindal is taking chances. If the rejection intensifies the suffering of unemployed men and women in his state, the governor risks losing popularity and any reputation he may have at the national level as a policy wonk.

On the other hand, if Obama’s efforts fail to stimulate the economy, Jindal can claim that he was right and that he saved taxpayer dollars from being squandered under wrong Democratic policies.

But Jindal’s rejection also smacks of raw cynicism and opportunism that have become hallmarks of his political career.

By rejecting the funding from Washington that would have brought relief to the unemployed, Jindal is helping businesses to keep down their tax rates for an unemployment compensation fund. Businesses are a key Republican constituency and Jindal needs their money to finance his larger political ambitions.

Louisiana faces a budget shortfall of almost $2 billion in the next fiscal year and Obama’s stimulus is calculated to create about 50,000 jobs in the state that is one of America’s poorest.

But its Indian American governor has opted to put politics ahead of welfare even in these troubled times.

In its latest issue, The Economist said about the choice of Jindal on Tuesday as a foil to Obama that “his Indian-American ancestry helps inoculate Republicans against the charge that theirs has become a party of, and for, white people”.

The Republicans have already elected a black man, Michael Steele, as the chairman of the party’s national committee following Obama’s election as President.