Jonathan Chait

What Will Obama's Speech Accomplish?

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It always seemed clear to me, though it has not seemed clear to many liberals, that the exquisite care President Obama takes to establish his reasonableness and moderation is the first step of a two-step process. Having disarmed the criticism, if opponents refuse to meet him halfway, he is well positioned to win the ensuing fight.

Obama's emphasis on deficit reduction, and the resulting agreement to cut spending and establish a committee to reduce the deficit further, strengthens his position to demand economic stimulus:

The agreement we passed in July will cut government spending by about $1 trillion over the next ten years.  It also charges this Congress to come up with an additional $1.5 trillion in savings by Christmas.  Tonight, I’m asking you to increase that amount so that it covers the full cost of the American Jobs Act.  And a week from Monday, I’ll be releasing a more ambitious deficit plan – a plan that will not only cover the cost of this jobs bill, but stabilize our debt in the long run.

I don't think Congress will pass all of Obama's proposal, and it may not pass any of it. The speech is politics. This is not to diminish it. Politics is how we ensure democratic accountability. Republicans are blocking fiscal stimulus while benefiting from the public tendency to hold the presidency solely responsible for all outcomes. This error is a problem not just for Democrats but for democrats as well. The ability of Republicans to enjoy power without responsibility gives them perverse incentives, and requires of them a selflessness that is the opposite of the incentive structure intended by ours or any democratic system.

Obama's speech will probably not force Republicans to act. But it may help clarify that they are the ones blocking action. Obama needs to position himself as an opponent of the status quo. That may be difficult for a president to do, but it matches reality, and given the reality of a wildly unpopular Republican House, it is not completely impossible.

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