President Obama’s speech on the economy today was best understood as an opening shot in what he promised will be a sustained campaign to break the austerity curse that has gripped Washington ever since the 2010 elections persuaded Obama and Dems to enter into a defensive crouch in the big arguments over government spending and the economy.
As Ezra Klein notes, today’s speech was short on policy. It wasn’t a policy speech. It was a set up to something much longer. But that much longer thing could prove important. Obama said he’d be taking his case on the road in coming days in a series of speeches and appearances, and vowed to “engage” the public in an argument over the true nature of our short and long term economic challenges. Indeed, this speech was more of a template for what’s to come — a sustained argument against the prevailing pro-austerity prejudices that continue to hold sway in Washington and for a robust government role in creating jobs and securing long term middle class security.
Obama repeatedly claimed that creating jobs and addressing the long term trends undermining the middle class should be Washington’s top priorities. That is welcome after Washington has spent so many years wandering around in a rhetorical world defined by an argument over how much austerity to impose, rather than over whether to impose it at all.
“The president clearly rejected the notion that the best way to help the middle class is to reduce the budget deficit,” former White House economics adviser and longtime austerity critic Jared Bernstein tells me. “The president recognizes that there are important parts of the economy in which the private sector under-invests — clean energy and manufacturing jobs — and that these are public policy issues in every other advanced economy, and should be here as well. The speech was a recognition that there’s a critical growth-enhancing role for government investment, particularly as it impacts middle and lower income people.”
Obama himself is partly culpable for helping to create the 2011 fiscal framework that locked us in that seemingly interminable argument over austerity, and it remains to be seen what future fiscal deals Obama and Dems agree to. It’s always hard to say how much presidential speeches really matter. But Obama laid down a good blueprint from which to engage the argument over spending and the economy going forward, perhaps signaling a new anti-austerity phase of his presidency.
Republicans won’t ever act on any of Obama’s jobs policies, so this speech was partly an effort to place Obama rhetorically on the side of the middle class, just when the GOP is set to renew its push for more spending cuts amid a series of divisive crises this fall. Given implacable GOP opposition to his agenda, Obama has little choice but to try to seize the rhetorical and ideological initiative in hopes that it will make a difference in the spending fights ahead, and beyond that in the midterm elections.
In service of that goal, Obama sought to frame the problems facing the country in as grandiose terms as he could. As many commentators had hoped, Obama talked about declining wages and rising inequality not just as urgent moral problems, but as threats to long term growth and shared prosperity, and decried trends creating these problems that have been decades in the making. He noted that the deficit is falling faster than it has in decades.
Obama then made the case against continued GOP austerity as a threat to the recovery and the middle class, an effort to frame the coming battles over spending on more favorable terms. He linked that case to the debt ceiling, Obamacare, the sequester, relentless Republican obstructionism, and, tellingly, the growing discomfort of some Senate Republicans with scorched earth GOP tactics — a sign Dems will continue to keep driving that wedge when the crises heat up this fall:
We’ve seen a sizable group of Republican lawmakers suggest they wouldn’t vote to pay the very bills that Congress rang up – a fiasco that harmed a fragile recovery in 2011, and one we can’t afford to repeat. Then, rather than reduce our deficits with a scalpel – by cutting programs we don’t need, fixing ones we do, and making government more efficient – this same group has insisted on leaving in place a meat cleaver called the sequester that has cost jobs, harmed growth, hurt our military, and gutted investments in American education and scientific and medical research that we need to make this country a magnet for good jobs.
Over the last six months, this gridlock has gotten worse. A growing number of Republican Senators are trying to get things done, like an immigration bill that economists say will boost our economy by more than a trillion dollars. But a faction of Republicans in the House won’t even give that bill a vote, and gutted a farm bill that America’s farmers and most vulnerable children depend on.
If you ask some of these Republicans about their economic agenda, or how they’d strengthen the middle class, they’ll shift the topic to “out-of-control” government spending – despite the fact that we have cut the deficit by nearly half as a share of the economy since I took office. Or they’ll talk about government assistance for the poor, despite the fact that they’ve already cut early education for vulnerable kids and insurance for people who’ve lost their jobs through no fault of their own. Or they’ll bring up Obamacare, despite the fact that our businesses have created nearly twice as many jobs in this recovery as they had at the same point in the last recovery, when there was no Obamacare.
With an endless parade of distractions, political posturing and phony scandals, Washington has taken its eye off the ball. And I am here to say this needs to stop. Short-term thinking and stale debates are not what this moment requires. Our focus must be on the basic economic issues that the matter most to you – the people we represent. And as Washington prepares to enter another budget debate, the stakes for our middle class could not be higher.
Obama also challenged Republicans to respond with their own plan for the middle class — on jobs and health care alike:
If you think you have a better plan for making sure every American has the security of quality affordable health care, stop taking meaningless repeal votes and share your concrete ideas with the country. Repealing Obamacare and cutting spending is not an economic plan…I say to these members of Congress: I am laying out my ideas to give the middle class a better shot. Now it’s time for you to lay out yours.
As Dems noted with some satisfaction, the primary response from Republicans has been to mock Obama for giving the speech at all. GOP aides did tweet out a substantive blueprint for the Republican jobs plan. Its main provisions: Approve the Keystone pipeline; approve the House GOP jobs training bill; and expand offshore energy production.