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.