Obama’s Jobs Speech: Words of a Leader or Campaign Rhetoric?

Yes we can! And we did! And now we have to live with it

Because my partner and I are members of pre-Tivo Generation X, we still feel it’s a major event when the president speaks live on TV. And we both feel we have to watch it right that instant. But last night I was feeling rather sour about the whole thing. Once a fervent Obama supporter, I’m now a haggard, disappointed shadow of my former optimistic self. In other words, not great company for watching a presidential speech.

As usual, though, I was impressed by what he had to say. For a while, the language kept me from despair. He has a masterful speechwriter, who makes sure to leaven Obama’s intellectualism with folksy language that appeals to the Average Joe (the Plumber). Afterwards, we naturally watched live analysis, which, again, seemed exciting because it was live. PBS NewsHour political editor David Challan broke it down succintly, suggesting the speech had a micromessage and a macromessage. The micro was the kind of stuff we expected Obama to say: support small businesses, get people back to work, stop fellating the rich. The macro was a commentary on the way Washington works—or doesn’t work, as the case most certainly is. The macromessage included Obama’s rather stirring reminder of how government action has fostered this country’s success. It was some of the best writing of the entire speech, both rhetorically and stylistically:

We all remember Abraham Lincoln as the leader who saved our Union. But in the middle of a Civil War, he was also a leader who looked to the future—a Republican president who mobilized government to build the transcontinental railroad; launch the National Academy of Sciences; and set up the first land grant colleges. And leaders of both parties have followed the example he set. Ask yourselves—where would we be right now if the people who sat here before us decided not to build our highways, not to build our bridges, our dams, our airports? What would this country be like if we had chosen not to spend money on public high schools, or research universities, or community colleges? Millions of returning heroes, including my grandfather, had the opportunity to go to school because of the GI Bill. Where would we be if they hadn’t had that chance?

How many jobs would it have cost us if past Congresses decided not to support the basic research that led to the Internet and the computer chip? What kind of country would this be if this chamber had voted down Social Security or Medicare just because it violated some rigid idea about what government could or could not do? How many Americans would have suffered as a result?

These pointed comments are obviously and deliciously directed toward the infantile Tea Party legislators, and they deserve it.

There was another passage that was especially well crafted—this one about playing politics instead of doing what’s right:

Already, we’re seeing the same old press releases and tweets flying back and forth. Already, the media has proclaimed that it’s impossible to bridge our differences. And maybe some of you have decided that those differences are so great that we can only resolve them at the ballot box.

But know this: The next election is 14 months away. The people who sent us here—the people who hired us to work for them—they don’t have the luxury of waiting 14 months. Some of them are living week to week; paycheck to paycheck; even day to day. They need help, and they need it now.

He’s absolutely right—or the speechwriter is, anyway. It sounds lovely. But when it comes to this matter, Obama is full of it.

In the August 18th issue of The New York Review of Books, Elizabeth Drew, a prolific political historian, wrote about the evolution of the debt-ceiling crisis, and she did not hide her disgust at the way both parties manipulated a routine matter so they could start campaigning for 2012. Here’s a representative passage from Drew’s thorough play-by-play of the “crisis”:

Boehner of course wants to retain Republican control of the House—it’s not inconceivable that the Democrats could pick up the necessary twenty-four seats to recover it. Therefore, Boehner didn’t want his flock to have to cast a controversial vote anytime close to the election. On the other hand, with twenty-three Democratic senators up for reelection, McConnell has had his eye on a Republican takeover of the Senate. His party would need to pick up only four seats. Therefore, he was looking for a way to force a controversial vote closer to the election.

While the hoi polloi trembled at the thought of Social Security checks not going out, the kiddies on Capitol Hill played their silly games, swanning up and down marble hallways with shuffleboard sticks. The president preposterously embraced the role of a frowning schoolmarm watching over hopelessly rowdy toddlers during recess. But he’s right there in the sandbox with them.

Drew’s piece is called “What Were They Thinking?,” and the answer to that question makes our government seem about as sophisticated as Silvio Berlusconi’s.

According to another close observer, David Plouffe, the manager of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, who officially joined the White House staff in January 2011, has taken over. “Everything is about the reelect,” this observer says—”where the President goes, what he does.”

Plouffe’s advice to the President defines not just Obama’s policies but also his behavior. …. One White House émigré told me, “It’s not a place that welcomes ideas.”

I find this enormously depressing. The reason I voted for Obama was because he was a thinker—someone who could actually have ideas, unlike our last leader. He also talked eloquently about soaking up knowledge from diverse sources: scholars, foreign leaders, economists, etc. Now he’s soaking up knowledge from his poll-obsessed political advisers and allowing that to determine policy. Whatever he might say about traveling across this great land and hearing what American people have to say, he’s not really listening. As of last year, Drew writes, “the political advisers believed that elections are decided by middle-of-the-road independent voters, and this group became the target for determining the policies of the next two years.” Everyone out of the pool.

One of Drew’s sources told her: “If the political advisers had told him in 2009 that the median voter didn’t like the stimulus, he’d have told them to get lost.” Now he’s too scared not to listen.

Perhaps his second term (if he gets one) will afford him the chance to implement all the terrific ideas he summoned during the first campaign. If so, history (and progressives, in particular) will judge him kindly. If not, well, at least we’ve got the pretty words.