Later this week Obama will deliver a series of speeches designed to push his economic agenda back into the spotlight, part of a renewed effort to point out that the recovery and long term middle class economic security are being imperiled by the Congressional GOP’s refusal to act on jobs. There’s already been a fair amount of mockery on the Twitters and elsewhere of this new push, to the effect that isn’t it just hilarious that Obama is pivoting to jobs yet again.
And indeed it’s true that there is little to no chance the GOP will agree to support any of Obama’s jobs policies, from the push for more infrastructure spending to more job training. So what’s the point, right?
In one sense the speeches aren’t really about Obama’s jobs agenda, and are better understood as a set up to other battles that are set for this fall, over the debt ceiling, funding the government, and the sequester. In other words, we’re set for yet another political clash over the desirability of still more austerity amid a fragile recovery. So Obama’s speeches, in this context, will be not just about the need for job creation but also about reframing the national debate (again) over austerity to cast it as a threat to the economy at exactly the wrong time.
He’ll talk, no doubt, about positive things we should be doing to build long-term growth, like rebuilding infrastructure, taking advantage of clean energy opportunities, improving the knowledge and skills of the workforce, expanding international trade, etc., etc. But we all know the administration’s ability to get anything positive through Congress is very limited. So the implicit message is the danger of the federal government, via gridlock or the wrong kind of compromise, making things immensely worse.
“Do less harm” is a hell of a message to have to deliver, and Obama will be criticized, as he always is, for having less than a fully thought-through and brilliantly presented step-by-step agenda for the economy. But as we move into another hostage-taking season where Republicans are demanding more public-sector austerity — some of it directly and deliberately pursued through appropriations cuts, some perhaps indirectly imposed as a by-product of Republican-style “tax reform” — the president can only do so much fantasizing about what he might do if economic policymaking was a rational exercise.
Unfortunately, as always, we’re mired in a debate over how much austerity to continue to impose, rather than whether to impose any at all (yes, the president is partly at fault for the fact that we’re stuck in this conversation), so “let’s do less harm” is pretty much all we can hope for right now. But still, this is a matter of restating the administration’s “priorities,” as Atrios puts it.
None of this is likely to matter in 2014 and the smart political science money says presidential speeches don’t matter. But whether or not they change many minds, they can influence media coverage and they can focus the electorate on particular issues. Renewing the focus on the need for jobs and growth policies, and on the economic security of the middle class — just when Republicans are revving up their push for another destructive round of austerity and crisis governing — is at least worth a try.
UPDATE: Definitely check out Jim Tankersley’s post and series of charts on how bad the economy really is right now and how far away from full employment we really are.