Much Ado About Nothing? The Post-Mortem On The Speech

The reaction among the pundits to last night’s much hyped speech broke down along predictable lines, with conservatives panning it as proposing “more of the same” policies that contributed to the current economic mess (see also here), while liberals generally hailed its tone and, to a lesser extent, the content (see also here.)  The reality, I suspect, is that impact of The  Speech, both politically and policywise,  will be much less than either Obama’s supporters or critics believe.

To be sure, the speech was a newsworthy event.  Much of the media coverage made note of Obama’s new-found feistiness. In listening to the speech last night, my first reaction was that the tone seemed excessively preachy at times, with the President trying too hard to convince us that we faced an economic emergency. Similarly, the paean to American values and the recitation of successful public-private partnerships, complete with the allusions to Lincoln, struck me as over-the-top rhetoric more fitting to an inaugural address. I confess that part of my aversion to the moralistic tone is that it evoked memories of Carter’s famous “malaise” speech, in which – at a time of soaring energy costs and rising inflation – he cited Americans’ “crisis of confidence” as the root of their problems. But admittedly these are criticisms of style, not substance, and I suspect others found Obama’s righteous tone quite appropriate for the occasion.  I do think the “pass this bill now” refrain, while hokey, nevertheless drove home Obama’s point regarding the need for immediate action.

Substantively, The Speech was part policy proposal, part campaign rhetoric.  Until the revenue shoe drops (which Obama promised will come in another speech), it’s hard to evaluate the substantive component.  Critics on the Left will no doubt point out that, at about $450 billion, the overall size of these proposals is only half of Obama’s first stimulus bill, and where did that get us?  As I noted during the speech, Obama’s advisers were not making the mistake of fixing a job-created projection to the proposal, but my guess is that most economists will say that it will provide a mild economic stimulus at best. But even a mild stimulus is perhaps better than the alternative. On the other hand, many conservatives (and not a few economists, I suspect) will disagree, arguing that this is simply more government spending that essentially throws good money after bad.

Again, however, I think it is premature to either embrace or reject the President’s proposals without first seeing how they will be paid for.   He hinted at the need for entitlement reform and pushed for an overhaul of the tax code based on lowering corporate tax rates and closing loopholes and deductions. These are proposals that, in theory, Republicans can accept.  That compromise, however, will be thrashed out, initially, in the joint congressional supercommittee created as part of the debt agreement.

And that is a reminder that, despite the media hype leading up to The Speech – in the end, it was just that: a speech.  Under our system of shared powers, it is Congress that drives the legislative process, not the President. Obama’s most potent policy tool is the power to set the legislative agenda.  But at this point, 14 months before national elections, and with Obama’s approval ratings at low ebb, even this tool has been blunted.  In listening to the focus groups (and I realize there are dangers in extrapolating from these groups to the public at large), I was struck by how many individuals were disillusioned by both parties, and wanted government to, in effect, get out of the way. Essentially, they said they were pinning their hopes for a recovery on market forces.  It was a reminder that the President is in a very weak bargaining position.  He can beseech Republicans to act, but they will do so only if it serves their political interests – not his. His thinly-veiled threat to take his case “to the people” should Congress fail to act likely raised scarcely an eyebrow among Republicans, and understandably so.  Obama is in no position to threaten to mobilize the public – indeed, the bigger worry is that they are tuning him out. That fear, I think, explains the marked change in his tone last night, from “no drama” to “high drama” Obama.

In the end, The Speech was but the first step in the legislative process and a not very important one at that. It is crucial  to remember that most of what Obama proposed last night will never even reach the congressional floor for a vote. And that’s quite typical for any President.  I think there’s a far greater chance that Republicans will work with him on the revenue side.  But even here the process will be driven largely by the interests of legislators, beginning with those on the supercommittee.

In the end, I believe the most important impact of The Speech will be to remind us that, as I have often said, presidents in our governmental system are weak and that this President, at this time, is weaker than most.  This says less about his leadership capability than it does about the scope of the problems, and the political context in which he operates.  But it is a reality that one speech, however hyped, cannot change.


  1. I mostly agree. However, perhaps its my personal liberal bias but I do not see the Republican Party enacting the type of programs necessary to get out of the near Depression that we are in. A major critical part of the economic base of the Republican Party is the conservative Rich who are doing quite well thank you in current circumstances. Its dubious the likes of the Koch Bros. are unhappy about current political and economic circumstances. I agree with you that Presidents especially in modern i.e. Post Roosevelt times are largely weak. At this time the democrats need to adopt a serious primary challenge and like Lyndon Johnson, Obama needs to step down. There is little he can do to improve his electoral chances and only a clean slate might lead to the type of support which might elect somebody who has a strong interest in improving our depressed economy.

  2. Thank you! I have been saying this for weeks! But who, if not Hillary and she didn´t look too good at the Joint Session!

  3. Who can be engineered quickly. For example someone like Sherrod Brown or Barnie Frank … etc. The real issue is not who but what resources a Left–Liberal Alternative can Command. In principle the likes of George Soros, or even Warren Buffet could help bankroll a substantial candidate with Labor Support. In practice, to be absolute blunt it will take some sort of Social Unrest say analogous to German or French Labor protests before such as the above would in all probability be willing to act.

    People piously decried the violence of the riots like in Watts, but this was the social grease that made an African American president possible in the long term. The U.S. now according to the CIA has a wealth distribution comparable to the Ivory Coast. The key factor in the long run in producing the current economic and social disaster is the Reagan Tax cuts and the wealth distribution upward which occured since then. There is no pressure to change that let alone an attempt to solve the fundamental contradictions which plague the American economy: The paucity of well–paying productive jobs.

    Like Matthew Dickinson I think American Presidents are weak under most circumstances. If we want substantial economic change and a more Liberal Government the social conditions which give rise to such have to be present. While current Presidents are weak, FDR was not, and the very palpable fear of a socialist revolution at the time explains the difference. Until something analogous happens to engender such fear among the ruling elites one will see what one sees now: Actions designed to preserve strong American Financial Institutions and little else.

    I personally am sorry that John McCain was not elected in hindsight. It would better, as before if the current Herbert Hoover was someone labeled as on the right like McCain, than Barack Obama, whose actual liberalism is quite limited either because of his temperament or unfavorable circumstances in the end which is true doesn’t really matter. The net effect of an Obama Presidency is to tar the very liberal economic policies which haven’t occurred but were necessary to get us out of the current Depression. The U.S. will stagnate for another 20 years or until a general mobilization caused most likely by a new World War occurs. Sad to say the Japanese lost decade is looking quite good as an outcome which we will be unable to attain given our political system. We may never get out of this one and our decline may look like the decline of Argentina a Century ago.

  4. I’m agreeing with most everything being said here. But, as I only have a moment to comment, allow me to focus on one thing:

    Does anyone else find it disturbingly sexist that someone would think Hillary can’t do a job simply because she doesn’t look good on a certain night? Not that that was the intent of the Comment, but still. Really?

    We rarely hear “Wow, Obama looks horrible. Maybe he can’t do the job?” We might hear “Wow, Obama looks horrible. He must be under a lot of stress” or something like that, but never “he can’t handle the job”

    And finally — and I almost feel ridiculous mentioning this –, one can look like shyte and still run rings around anyone else in the room. The state of one’s hair and make-up and general demeanor, i.e. exhausted, jet-laggd, etc. has little bearing on one’s intelligence, grasp of the facts, or ability to decide what needs to be done and when (something Obama seems to have difficulty with even when his pearly whites are at their pearliest whitest).

    Leaving on a jet plane now, but felt compelled to take a good natured bat at this annoying sexist gnat.

  5. Hi Kick

    I´m the one who said that. As Matt will confirm I have been trying to get interest raised in a Hillary challenge since he wrote his blog about Öbama caving¨and my sister saw it in Salon. I call Bill Clinton´s office once a week…..I have written it on here and you have seen me. Of course she can do the job….but my comment was along the lines of Jeez, she looks beat and perhaps EVERYONE ELSE is right and she doesn´t want to do this. I´m a woman and that was never meant to be a sexist comment. The media mentioned Obama looked 10 years older as he entered Congress…they didn´t follow that copmment up with..he better step down. And since you admit that wasn´t the intent of the comment….why comment on it?

  6. Why NOT comment on it?

    I understood it wasn’t sexist for YOU to say it, Sally, as I’m well aware of your very public support for Hillary challenging Obama in the Primaries — or at least what I understand is your support for her doing that. I mentioned it simply because it’s an interesting phenomenon we still grapple with in the States and your comment, though not necessarily guilty of sexism, was a perfect opportunity to shine a bit of light on it.

    A woman is often held to different standards — and different criteria — than men. Sometimes even men with much less experience than them. So, yes, talking heads will say Obama looks like he’s aged 10 years, but they will NEVER say “you know, maybe he’s not up to the job”. Talking heads will also comment on Hillary’s appearance — or, really, any powerful female politician’s appearance — and then suggest that “perhaps this is too much for her.”

    So, why comment on it?

    Looking the monster in the face is often the best and easiest way to defeat it. And, in my eyes, sexism — and, no, I’m not accusing you of it, Sally — is an often ignored Beast in our American Life. So, talk about it. 🙂

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