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In case you didn’t watch the president’s swaggering speech Tuesday night, because after a month of previews it seemed to lack the drama of “Storage Wars” (which was on A&E at the same time and is actually a reality show about repossessed storage lockers, but let’s not get into it), here’s what you missed.
Remember that wrecked economy from the Bush years that was just kind of limping along, and how we were all living in 1930 with everybody destitute?
Yeah, forget all that. We’ve turned the corner. The economy’s on fire, and now it’s time to get back to building the country of our dreams, where everybody gets a Tesla.
Actually, Barack Obama’s case — slightly more nuanced than I just made it sound — is pretty compelling on the facts; by any traditional measure, the economy really is powering back from the steep recession he inherited. What’s puzzling is why it took so long for Obama to own that progress, and why he’s wasted so much of his presidency trying to figure out how to talk about it.
Obama, as you may have noticed by now, is a pretty cautious guy when it comes to testing the boundaries of political convention. If he’d asked my advice (and that’s never going to happen), I’d have suggested he dispense with the cursory mention of a hundred topics and the anecdotes about people sitting in the balcony, and instead use the entire speech to tell a story — much as Bill Clinton did at the 2012 convention — about why the economy tanked in 2008 and why it’s rebounding now.
I’d have suggested he become the first president to use PowerPoint slides in a national address, so that Americans at home could see the graphs showing job growth (about 246,000 per month last year), falling unemployment (the largest annual drop in 30 years, even if some of that reflects a decline in workforce participation) and shrinking deficits.
Also, it would have been a riot to see last month’s unemployment numbers projected onto John Boehner’s forehead.
But in his more traditional way, Obama offered the rough draft of his own legacy and tried to focus the nation’s attention on exactly the policy choices we ought to be focused on. The president wanted to make clear this wasn’t his “mission accomplished” moment; he acknowledged, for instance, persistent inequality. But he also looked ahead to the next phase of the economic mission, which is to help families meet the nearly insurmountable costs of higher education, child care and saving for retirement.
If Obama’s words Tuesday night didn’t land with the kind of impact they should have, though, it’s because they came so long after most Americans had stopped paying attention. Ironically, given his relative inexperience and his reputation as an orator when he was elected in 2008, Obama has turned out to be a better steward of the economy than he is a champion of it.
This confusion goes all the way back to 2009, when Obama’s genius advisers made some very ill-advised projections about how the economy would magically right itself within plenty of time of the 2010 midterms. That was the calculus that led Obama to steer his administration into a fierce storm over health care, even as the unemployment rate hovered stubbornly near 10 percent.
By the time he ran for re-election in 2012, the economy had cleared imminent danger and was slowly recovering, and he could reasonably have claimed credit. The 2009 auto bailout, for instance, staved off catastrophe in the Midwest and maybe the entire industrial sector.
But Obama’s aides were petrified of pointing to any real progress without first going through an entire monologue on the misery that continued to befall ordinary Americans. They feared that too much boasting would make the president seem out of touch.
And, more than that, the deeper he got into what he characterized as his “one paragraph” presidency, the more fatalistic Obama himself seemed to become. He gave the impression that he didn’t think he could really affect the economy, anyway. The winds of history would blow this way and that, and all a president could do was hope for a gust.
So Obama made taxes and concentrated wealth — rather than the promise of a nascent recovery — the central theme of his re-election campaign.
Ever since, Obama has found himself buffeted by the self-described populists in his party, whose core message relies on the idea that America is always headed backward and that everything is getting worse. This was the subject of an interesting, if little noticed, debate in Washington during the run-up to the State of the Union address. Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator and idol of the populist left, took the unusual step of publicly attacking a story in Politico Magazine, because the writer, Michael Grunwald, argued (only a little facetiously) that the real state of the American economy was awesomeness.
As has been the case throughout his presidency, Obama, determined not to be seen as a triangulator, has shied away from disagreement with the populists in his own party, even if it means downplaying his own record. He’s gone on talking mostly about economic suffering and inequality, at a time when the broad base of the country might well have responded to a more hopeful message — especially from the guy who used “hope” as his campaign slogan.
At every one of these junctures, Obama forfeited an opportunity — not simply to trumpet his own growing success, but to help voters understand the crucial distinction between short-term and long-term economic challenges. He missed the chance to say, “Guess what? Things are actually getting a lot better now. You’re welcome. But we still face a serious crisis for your kids not too far down the line, and that’s what I want to focus on next.”
That’s the argument he made Tuesday, and it comes too late for his own presidency. No one seriously believes that Obama can enact any of the major proposals he ticked off in his speech. The public isn’t likely to rally around him now, and absent that, Republicans have written him off.
Obama has now been reduced to suggesting topics for conversation, sort of like a facilitator-in-chief. “Talk amongst yourselves.”
But maybe that role can be useful, too. Because the speech he gave Tuesday, long overdue and soon to be eclipsed by another presidential campaign, raises all the right questions for the country’s future.
What does a modern tax code look like? What about modern infrastructure? Where are the next century’s jobs?
Trust me, we’re not going to find them in a repossessed storage locker.