With most of the country saying he has mismanaged the economy, President Obama will use an address to a joint session of Congress on Thursday to outline his plan to create jobs and head off a second recession. It will be the fifth time Obama has spoken to a joint session, the howitzer of the presidential communications arsenal.
But the risks this time are as high as the potential for any reward.
Obama faces some particular challenges on this outing, ones magnified by the summer’s debt-ceiling debate, when he spoke frequently to the American public but with little effect on the outcome.
Americans have been hearing a lot from him. For months, he has discussed some of the same jobs proposals he will detail in the speech, mentioning them as recently as this week at a Labor Day rally in Detroit.
With the unemployment rate locked in above 9 percent, voters are weary of words. Another high-profile speech is likely to underscore how little has changed since Obama said in his first joint-session address, a month after taking office, “Now is the time to jump-start job creation.”
Beyond the specific policy prescriptions, Obama’s speech will also serve as an opening statement of his reelection bid, the success of which may depend on his ability to persuade a divided Congress to act on his proposals — or saddle it with the blame if it refuses to go along.
“He better be prepared to say something that people haven’t heard before, or it’s going to be counterproductive,” said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “In many ways, he’s run out of options, at least the options that you’d want to advertise before a full-blooded, joint session of Congress.”
Even some of his critics grant that Obama is a gifted orator and that he has used the big speech effectively to get himself out of political trouble before.
During a neck-and-neck Democratic primary campaign in 2008, Obama spoke to the nation about the legacy of race in America, largely clearing the issue from the contest and reinvigorating his campaign. After the summer of 2009, when angry anti-health-care town hall meetings emerged as a fixture on the political landscape, he urged a joint session of Congress to reform health care, putting the initiative back on track.
His December 2009 address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he outlined both an escalation of the unpopular Afghanistan war effort and an exit strategy, clarified his policy after a months-long internal debate that his critics called dithering. Polls recorded a rise in support for the war, albeit a temporary one.
Poll numbers loom
Thursday evening, Obama will again address an American electorate with doubts about his presidency.