Obama's Big Speech Doesn't Matter
It's what he does afterward that counts.
UPDATE: In a feisty speech on Thursday night before a joint session of Congress, President Barack Obama demanded that the legislators pass a $447 billion jobs plan, including various tax cuts, extended unemployment insurance, funds for infrastructure projects and the rebuilding of schools, and other provisions. Obama spoke forcefully and directly challenged Congress to move quickly, noting he would take his message to every corner of the nation. He appeared to be setting up a fight, if the Republican House balks.
It was a time of economic uncertainty. The jobs picture was bleak. The president's approval numbers were low. The opposition was howling that his policies were ruining the economy. Voters were losing faith in his ability to handle economic matters. What did this president do? He delivered a major speech. He noted that millions of Americans had recently been thrown out of their jobs. He proclaimed there was "an urgent need to accelerate job growth in the short term." And he proposed job-creating initiatives that would cost up to $200 billion and called on Congress to enact these measures quickly.
That president was Barack Obama—back in December 2009, when his economic advisers feared that the recovery, which had been boosted by the stimulus package passed earlier in the year, was weakening. After months of wrangling in the White House, Obama and his aides had finally concluded that another shot of stimulus—though they didn't call it that—was necessary. So that month, Obama delivered a big speech at the Brookings Institution and proclaimed the need for a series of new initiatives. But what came next? Basically, not much. There was little, if any, follow-up. The president and the White House were preoccupied with the health care reform slog, and Obama did not lead a charge for his new jobs plan. "Health care and stimulus fatigue trumped," a member of the White House economic team recalls.
That's why what Obama does after Thursday night's much-anticipated jobs speech before a joint session of Congress is just as important—if not more so—as what's in the speech.
In that 2009 Brookings address, Obama proposed a list of solutions to the jobs crisis: a collection of tax breaks and loans for small businesses, a hiring-tax credit, an infrastructure program, incentives for homeowners who retrofit their houses, an extension of unemployment benefits, and fiscal relief for states. Time magazine observed at the time that this was a "new Obama," using "fighting words" to advance another stimulus that he was not calling a stimulus. Noted economist Mark Zandi praised the move, saying, "We have to make absolutely positively sure that this recovery evolves into a self-sustaining economic expansion, and that is what this is all about." Yet that speech didn't end up mattering. It did not mark "a new Obama" or a new fight. (And Obama delivered that address when the Democrats controlled the House and maintained a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.)