President Obama’s debt limit speech was utterly mystifying. A presidential address to the nation is a chosen and deliberate political act. It involves the expenditure of limited resources — prime television time and public patience. It is, presumably, the result of a strategy, involving policy, communications and speechwriting staff.
Last night’s speech contained no new proposals and no serious attempt to reframe the public debate. Obama’s attempt at forging a grand budget compromise has failed. His leadership style — both petulant and unreliable — has alienated both Republican and Democratic congressional leaders. The legislative process now moves forward without much input from the president. The debate focuses on proposals recently made by House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Obama’s main policy focus last night — a tax increase on the wealthy — will not pass the House and has been abandoned in Reid’s approach. Obama only tepidly endorsed Reid’s compromise. He did not promise to veto Boehner’s current plan. Instead, Obama presented himself as a horrified outsider — a voice in the wilderness, calling for compromise. But there are currently some possible compromises on the table, which Obama did not seriously address or improve upon.
In his speech to the nation, Obama ignored the actual legislative debate in Washington — the one the might yield an actual debt limit agreement — in order to advocate an approach few believe can succeed. So what was the strategy behind Obama’s speech? There are only a few possibilities:
First, Obama may really believe he is the great communicator — that merely through the power and magic of his words, he could cause the Capitol switchboards to flood and force Republicans to repent of their foolish opposition to taxes. Obama, however, has provided no evidence of such superhuman rhetorical power in the past. This strategy is delusional.
Second, Obama may have thought the speech would reestablish his relevance, commanding a spotlight no other politician can command. Feeling hurt, ignored and bypassed, he might have wanted to remind Americans that he is still president. But doesn’t proposing an outcome he will not achieve only add to the impression of irrelevance? There are better forms of therapy than a national presidential address.
Third, Obama’s staffers might not have known what else to do, so they decided to fill an awkward silence by repeating arguments on national television that the president has repeatedly made before. In this case, the administration has thrown away a valuable presidential resource on a whim.
Fourth, Obama could believe there is raw political benefit to be found in painting Republicans as tools of the rich, unwilling to serve the public good. This approach might make sense after debt limit negotiations have collapsed and the blame game begins. But this hasn’t happened yet. Only Obama’s flawed initiative has collapsed. Reid and Boehner are still working on deals of their own, without including new taxes that offend Republicans or major entitlement reforms that offend Democrats. Obama’s decision to get a jump on the blame game may help undermine these efforts at compromise. And that doesn’t seem particularly public spirited.
Prime-time presidential addresses often mark and explain important historical moments. This one will be remembered differently: a speech to the nation for no apparent reason.