But it worth noting that the speech – as a speech – succeeded in several ways:
● Obama’s tone was effective – brisk, blunt, tough and impatient. Writing an economics speech is one of the most difficult, thankless jobs in Washington. They are almost always boring. This one had rhetorical momentum.
● Obama, for once, didn’t blame President George W. Bush for current economic ills. He seemed to recognize that blame shifting, at this late hour, would not be credible, and might even appear pathetic. Obama’s foil, instead, was the “political circus” in Washington – a more recent and reasonable target.
● The president gave sustained attention to small businesses – something he has previously failed to do. (See my critique here.)
● Obama not only admitted the need for Medicare reform, he correctly diagnosed the Medicare problem – the combination of an aging population and rising health costs. He even conceded that in the absence of reform, the system “won’t be there.” Next he’ll be calling it a Ponzi scheme.
● His historical reference to Abraham Lincoln’s program of internal improvements was smart and appropriate. It drove home the point that many modern Republicans – who would doubtlessly regard Lincoln a RINO (Republican In Name Only) – are isolated from the mainstream of their own tradition.
Obama’s joint session had its share of failings. Late in the speech, he made a sharp detour into demagoguery – accusing his opponents, among other ideological crimes, of endorsing the mercury poisoning of children. His offset proposal – calling for larger budget cuts from the deficit super-committee – didn’t pass the laugh test. It is not particularly courageous to demand courage from others.
With all its flaws, however, Obama’s big speech showed a sophisticated strategy and moved at an energetic pace. And that is more than can be said of most economics speeches.