Obama's Truman Show

by Jonathan Chait | June 30, 2011

News reports of President Obama's press conference focused on his portrayal of himself as the responsible adult vis a vis the child-like Republicans, and on his insistence that a debt deal include shared sacrifice. But I think the most important theme was the way Obama castigated Congress for failing to act to stimulate the economy:

In addition to the steps that my administration can take on our own, there are also things that Congress could do right now that will help create good jobs.  Right now, Congress can send me a bill that would make it easier for entrepreneurs to patent a new product or idea –- because we can’t give innovators in other countries a big leg up when it comes to opening new businesses and creating new jobs.  That's something Congress could do right now.
Right now, Congress could send me a bill that puts construction workers back on the job rebuilding roads and bridges –- not by having government fund and pick every project, but by providing loans to private companies and states and local governments on the basis of merit and not politics.  That's pending in Congress right now.
Right now, Congress can advance a set of trade agreements that would allow American businesses to sell more of their goods and services to countries in Asia and South America -– agreements that would support tens of thousands of American jobs while helping those adversely affected by trade.  That's pending before Congress right now.
And right now, we could give middle-class families the security of knowing that the tax cut I signed in December will be there for one more year.
So there are a number of steps that my administration is taking, but there are also a number of steps that Congress could be taking right now on items that historically have had bipartisan support and that would help put more Americans back to work.

This is a kind of Obama-ized version of Harry Truman's famous campaign against the "do-nothing Republican Congress." It's Obama-ized in that he precedes the above passage by touting various pro-business initiatives his administration has taken unilaterally, and because he takes care to note that the proposals he touts for Congress have all enjoyed bipartisan support.

But the thrust of the passage is to assail Congress for failing to act. This is -- and has to be -- a major component of Obama's political message through the 2012 election. The economic recovery is going to be too long and difficult to run a "see how great things are" campaign. The only real alternative is to shift the blame for the status quo onto Republicans who have blocked his economic recovery agenda. The other portion of his campaign has to be contrasting his priorities on taxes and spending, which line up relatively closely with those of most Americans, against those of his Republican opponent, which will not. That theme, too predominated in Obama's remarks, and was presaged in his April budget speech.

The truth is that none of Obama's proposals would have more than a marginal boost for growth. (That makes them better than the Republican proposals, which would worsen the economy.) But he needs a theme, and castigating Republicans for failing to act on his moderate, pro-business agenda seems like a useful way to combine Clintonian and Trumanite themes.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/jonathan-chait/91091/obamas-truman-show