JONATHAN COHN SEPTEMBER 1, 2011
President Obama has accommodated Speaker John Boehner by moving his speech from Wednesday to Thursday. He also intends accommodate football fans by finishing his address before the Packers and Saints play in the NFL season opener that evening. Kickoff is at 8:30, so I suppose that means the president plans to begin the speech early or to speak really, really quickly. Maybe he can get some pointers from the guy who used to make those FedEx commercials.
But does the speech even matter? In a provocative essay today, a weary and disillusioned Ezra Klein makes the case that it doesn't:
Obama’s speech will achieve nothing. It will go nowhere because it has nowhere to go. A speech can rally the base, and maybe even temporarily change the topic in the news. But it can’t change the fundamental fact of politics right now, which is that the two parties disagree on the most profound question in Washington. It’s not: How do we fix the economy? It is: Who should win the next election?
So long as Republicans and Democrats disagree on that, there will be no significant cooperation on substantive issues. Boehner simply will not cut off his party’s candidates at the knees, especially its presidential contenders, by handing Obama a major economic accomplishment. Because he controls the House of Representatives, that means Obama -- and, by extension, the U.S. -- is not going to get a major economic accomplishment.
Ezra is obviously right about the political fundamentals and he is right, I think, about the limits of what one speech can accomplish. And he's far from the only person I know convinced action on the economy is impossible. But being the eternal optimist that I am, let me make the case for why the speech really could matter – if the president and his advisers follow through on it.
It's true that few people will actually listen to speech and that many of those who do will be political junkies or political partisans who've already made up their minds about economic policy. But the next morning, many more people who don't pay that much attention to politics will hear a short excerpt of the speech while eating breakfast or driving to work. And even those who don’t hear content from the speech will be aware that Obama gave it – i.e., they will get the message that Obama wants to do something to fix the economy and create jobs.
And the idea isn’t simply to give one speech. It’s to follow up the speech with appearances, radio addresses, executive orders; to coordinate these actions with the rest of the Democratic Party leadership; to rally validators from outside the party; and to do this over a lengthy period of time. The idea, in other words, is to wage an aggressive and sustained public relations campaign for new interventions into the economy.
Could such a campaign force Congress to act? The odds are low but far from zero. Republicans didn't want to pass financial reform in 2010 and, in the Senate, they had the votes to get their way. They relented because some of them feared the political consequences of siding with the financial industry and against the average American. Particularly if Obama and his allies able to frame the debate over economic policy in similarly favorable terms -- whether it's between action and inaction, or helping the rich versus helping the unemployed – then I think Republicans might buckle once again.
No, they're not going to sign up for a 21st Century version of the Works Progress Administration, even though it would take that kind of ambition to create what would feel like a true recovery. But even modest action could employ a few hundred thousand people – an incremental improvement, yes, but of significance to the people who got jobs.
And that’s to say nothing of the political impact such a coordinated effort could have. Obama’s best case for reelection is to convince Americans he's trying to fix the economy -- and that the Republicans won't let him. The only way to make that case is to make proposals and then argue for them, in a very public way, over and over again. (This does suggest, as my colleague Jonathan Chait recently suggested, that the most important quality of the speech is its political potential, rather than its policy content per se.)
To be clear, I'm not guaranteeing that the upcoming push on jobs will succeed, either as policy or politics. It will require, among other things, the sort of aggressive, sustained campaigning we have rarely seen from the Democratic Party or from this White House. (Mike Tomasky, for one, is skeptical.) But the effort is worthwhile -- and a presidential speech before Congress is a fine place to start, whenever it takes place.