- - Thursday, February 13, 2014

Suddenly, with two roll-call votes, the messy, multi-issue battles of the 2014 elections have been refocused on two central issues that will put the GOP back in charge of Congress.

The budget and debt-limit fights have been set aside for the time being, with the swift votes this week for a debt-limit extension and the earlier passage of a budget to keep the government running for the rest of this year.

This means that the midterm election battles for the rest of this year will be turned into a clear referendum on the voters’ two foremost concerns: a weak, jobless economy and the increasingly unpopular, dictatorial Obamacare law.

Democrats, who rarely if ever talk about either of these issues, were hoping and praying that this year’s elections would remain muddy enough for them to save a number of their House and Senate seats from GOP takeovers.

However, House Republicans couldn’t agree on any subset of demands they hoped to extract from Senate Democrats in the debt-limit bill, forcing House Speaker John A. Boehner to offer a “clean” bill and end the issue for the year. It quickly passed the Senate.

Now the focus returns full-bore to two major issues on which President Obama and the Democats are weakest among the general electorate. The early signs suggest they will get creamed on both in the fall, as the economy plunges into another slump, and Obamacare lurches from one debacle after another.

If anyone thinks for a moment that the White House is not worried about the political fallout of all of this, consider what the president did Tuesday. He abruptly handed midsized-business employers a politically driven reprieve from his health care law.

Under the new rules announced by the Treasury Department, these employers will have until 2016 — two years longer than the law intended — before they become liable for federal penalties if they do not comply with the rules requiring that they pay part of their employees’ health care.

Midsized businesses of 100 employees or more got a one-year grace period.

How conveniently timed. Warned by his advisers and top Democrats that if the penalty fines kick in this year, as the law required, Mr. Obama was in for a worse shellacking than he got in the 2010 GOP takeover of the House. This time, he faces losing the Senate.

This is the second time Mr. Obama has been forced to change the rules in the law. Last summer, when the White House was being bombarded by business complaints, he agreed to delay the rules for one year.

The White House and Treasury has used slick legalese to defend the delays, but no one in Washington is fooled by their political flimflam. “As word of the delays spread Monday, many across the ideological spectrum viewed them as an effort by the White House to defuse another health-care controversy before the fall midterm elections,” The Washington Post said in its lead story on the postponement.

Opponents of the so-called “Affordable Care Act” saw the latest actions as further proof that Obamacare is in deeper political trouble than they had previously thought.

The White House was now caught in a firefight from both sides, between diehard liberals, who are pressuring Mr. Obama to stick to his guns on the law’s rigid employer mandates and penalties, and Republicans, who know that Obamacare is their most lethal political weapon and plan to make it their war cry from now until Election Day.

By midweek, the president was being lectured like a little schoolboy for caving into the demands of midsized businesses. The Obamacare law is “explicit that the government should be enforcing penalties already,” the newspaper said. “The administration shouldn’t dismiss that without exceptionally good reason. Fear of a midterm shellacking doesn’t qualify as good reason.”

That’s what will happen, though, no matter how many delays in the law Mr. Obama approves. You don’t have to take a poll to know that too many businesses are struggling, and they see Obamacare’s punitive mandates pulling them down, forcing them to either lay off workers or put them on part-time status to avoid higher health care costs.

The real political killer is the U.S. labor market, which still has not recovered from the recession. Who says so? None other than Federal Reserve Chairman Janet Yellen, who was handpicked by the president for the job.

The recovery in the labor market is “far from complete,” Ms. Yellen testified before Congress this week, and she didn’t mince words. She said the jobless rate remains much too high, and she was especially concerned about the “unusually large fraction” of workers who have been jobless for six months or more.

She further noted that a large number of workers are forced to work only part time when they need full-time jobs to make ends meet, but can’t find them.

For those in the White House who brag about the economy’s subpar economic-growth rates, Ms. Yellen said the persistent weakness in labor markets showed that annual economic growth had fallen well below its full potential.

These are the economic failures that Republicans need to address in this year’s campaigns, and they should do it in the strongest language possible. This is no time to play Mr. Nice Guy.

Millions of Americans are jobless, underemployed or have given up all hope of finding work. The government is led by a president who hasn’t a clue about how to unlock the power of our once-mighty economy to achieve its fullest growth potential. Republicans need to start talking again about how job-creating tax cuts, energy expansion, trade exports and other pro-growth ideas can put America back to work.

It’s a hopeful, optimistic message that Americans are hungry to hear again, and this is the year to do it. It’s time to give Mr. Obama and his party another shellacking.

Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and contributor to The Washington Times.

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