That was a lot of hype for very little policy

July 24, 2013

That was a lot of hype for precious little speech.

(Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
(Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

It's not that President Obama's big economic speech (which you can read here) was bad. It's that it was, unexpectedly, a warm-up rather than the main event. Obama said it himself. "Let me give you a quick preview of what I’ll be fighting for and why," he told the crowd. The meat of Obama's economic policy agenda will be unveiled in a series of speeches over the next several weeks.

So don't look to this speech for the details of the policy. Look to it for the signal of the "pivot."

"Pivot" is the word Washington likes to use when a White House stops talking about one thing and begins talking about another thing. In this case, the speech was billed as President Obama's "pivot" back to jobs.

In almost all cases -- this one included -- the idea of that kind of "pivot" is nonsense. The "jobs" tab didn't disappear from the White House Web site in recent months. It was still there, and if you clicked on it, you'd see a link for "the blueprint," and if you clicked on that, you'd see links to a series of plans all of which included vastly more policy proposals than Wednesday's speech.

Nor did President Obama stop talking about jobs between, say, Feb. 2 and July 24. On July 13, for instance, he gave a radio address on immigration reform that was all about how it would create jobs. Talking about jobs is pretty much a prerequisitie in any speech the president gives. On July 2, at a speech in the Symbion Power Plant in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, he argued their success "means more exports for the U.S. and more jobs in the U.S." They must have been very excited to hear that.

The "pivot" here isn't back to a topic Obama never left. It's to a different way of looking at the jobs problem. Obama said it himself. The key line in Obama's speech was this one:

What we need isn’t a three-month plan, or even a three-year plan, but a long-term American strategy, based on steady, persistent effort, to reverse the forces that have conspired against the middle class for decades.

This speech marked the Obama administration's pivot from emergency measures to create jobs right now to a more long-term agenda for creating jobs. The speeches Obama previewed Wednesday are on manufacturing, health care, education, home ownership, retirement security, and social mobility. All are worthy topics. None of them offer much hope to someone who's jobless right now.

In economist terms, Obama is moving from trying to fix "cyclical" problems -- namely, the joblessness caused by an awful recession -- to "structural" problems.

In that, the choice of Knox College was appropriate. Obama's last speech there was in June 2005, when he delivered an address on the country's economic problems amidst 5 percent unemployment. Back then, there was no unemployment emergency, and so the recitation of economic ills focused on the failures of the education system and the problems of the health-care system and the workers who were finding their skills rendered obsolete by technology or globalization. But those were long-term problems, and their solutions would take some time, too.

But then came the financial crisis and a whole new set of economic problems and solutions. Education and health care still mattered, of course, but our economic problem was mass unemployment, and the way to solve it, in the Obama administration's estimation, was to do something, anything, maybe even everything -- and do it fast. That's what the stimulus was, and what the American Jobs Act was, and that's what pretty much every White House economic announcement has looked like for years: A kitchen-sink approach to the jobs crisis, with the emphasis on using federal dollars to get demand into the economy as quickly as possible.

This speech marks the transition away from that period, and back to the kind of plans that Obama was thinking about in 2005. That represents an acceptance of a political reality as much as an economic one: Mass unemployment hasn't left us, and the Obama administration would still like to see their plans for addressing it passed. But the political conditions for doing anything about mass unemployment died in 2010, and they're not likely to return before the end of Obama's second term. So the White House is pivoting toward a set of economic ideas that they hope Congress might be a bit more receptive to -- ideas that solve our long-term problems rather than our short-term crises.

Oh, and no mention of the Federal Reserve pick, of course.

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