Obama’s jobs speech tonight was one of the most aggressive of his presidency, at a moment where a show of strength — given his badly weakened political state — was an absolute imperative. Anyone who wanted Obama to show that he’s ready to mount a sustained fight to create jobs, to give an aggressive defense of the idea that government can and must act to fix the economy, to make a serious effort to break the Beltway Deficit Feedback Loop and shift the conversation to job creation, and to offer an expansive moral and big-D Democratic critique of the conservative economic vision, should be very satisfied by what they heard.
Yes, it was just a speech. Yes, Republicans will likely oppose just about everything in it. Yes, we don’t know what Obama and Dems will ultimately agree to on entitlements and on the Congressional super-committee. Yes, Dems have been playing on GOP turf for far too long. But we simply needed to hear a genuine and ambitious effort to get Washington talking about jobs in a serious way, and this speech was just that. If this is the template for what lies ahead, it’s encouraging indeed.
Ezra Klein has the rundown on the speech’s policy proposals. He notes that it represents a serious challenge to Congress, in that everyone should be able to find job-creation ideas in it that they should like. I’ll stick to the politics.
Obama didn’t just urge Congress to pass his jobs plan; he repeatedly hectored Congress to do it. He demanded that Congress pass his plan — often demanding that they do so “right away” — no less than 15 times. And he vowed to barnstorm the country if Congress doesn’t pass the plan. The tone of urgency bordered on overkill — which is a good thing: “You should pass it. And I intend to take that message to every corner of this country.” Aides had promised he would challenge, rather than beseech, Congress to act. That turned out to be an understatement.
With public pessimism about government running high, the pressure was on Obama to make a strong case that government can create jobs and fix the economy, as a way of breaking the toxic cycle created by Washington’s deficit obsession. And he made a real effort to do that. Indeed, he cast this current moment as a referendum on whether government is even capable of helping its citizens at a time of national economic calamity. “The question is whether, in the face of an ongoing national crisis, we can stop the political circus and actually do something to help the economy,” Obama said. “There are steps we can take right now to improve people’s lives.”
Those who feared Obama would offer more tacit validation for the conservative economic vision — with a moratorium on regulations or something along those lines — were treated to the opposite spectacle. Yes, Obama did seem to leave the door open to some form of entitlements cuts, and he did target the straw man of Democrats who supposedly oppose doing nothing at all in the way of entitlement reform. But he defended an activist role for government by putting it in its historical context, linking it to the G.I. bill and to Abraham Lincoln’s mobilization of “government” to build the transcontinental railroads. Crucially, he also went out of his way to challenge the conservative worldview that government and regulations are an impediment to restoring prosperity, arguing that the crisis musn’t be a pretext to sweep away regulatory protections the American people have come to rely on: “Thats’s not who we are.”
Obama has given fiery speeches like this before — perhaps not quite this fiery — only to end up trading away liberal priorities to a degree unacceptable to the left. And as Ezra notes, when the topic turns to deficit reduction, liberal excitement will rapidly wane. But this is a speech liberals and Dems really needed to hear from their Democratic president, and if it is an indication of what’s to come, things could get very interesting. He drew a strong contrast with the conservative vision, and offered a strong opening bid towards an effort to make it increasingly difficult for Congress not to act. There’s been an ongoing argument over whether the bully pulpit matters, and over whether speeches can actually shift public opinion. Whatever the answer to that question, Obama made a pretty ambitious effort to prove tonight that the bully pulpit still matters a great deal indeed.