There are four ways to look at the President’s big speech (well, five, if you want to delve into why the whole shebang was a mere 32 minutes or so -- a good 10 minutes less than the White House promised).
The first is the politics of the matter – which couldn’t be any more naked (here’s a “layman’s guide” that neatly explains why).
The speech supposedly was so epic as to dictate the rarely used vehicle of a non-State of the Union joint session of Congress (the 16th such time in the last 40 years and 8 presidencies – and the 4th consecutive to have been held soon after the Labor Day holiday).
However, it wasn’t so set-in-stone as to offend the sensibilities of (a) Nancy Reagan (a Wednesday Obama speech stepping on her debate) or (b) NFL addicts (Thursday’s speech moved up to 7 p.m. EDT in order to steer clear of the kickoff in Green Bay).
What drove the President to Capitol Hill? Try fetid poll numbers – his handling of the economy (five times worse than Jimmy Carter?); the crumbling confidence of the Democratic faithful (59% of Pennsylvania union households telling pollstersthey want someone else in the White House).
Obama needs to stem that bleeding; the White House figured a big speech would be a tourniquet.
The second way to score the speech: its topic-worthiness. With that in mind, let’s review the list of previous, non-State of the Union joint-session addresses:
Nixon Budget Plans (9/9/71)
European Trip Report (6/1/72)
Ford Inflation/Economy (10/8/74)
World Affairs (4/10/75)
Carter Energy Crisis and OPEC (4/20/77)
Camp David Accords (9/18/78)
SALT II (6/18/79)
Reagan Post-Assassination (4/28/81)
Central American Doctrine (4/27/83)
Geneva Summit Report (11/21/85)
Bush 41 Kuwait/Gulf Unrest (9/11/90)
End of Gulf War (3/6/91)
Clinton “Hillarycare” (9/22/93)
Bush 43 War on Terror (9/20/01)
Obama “Obamacare” (9/9/09)
The third determinant: the historical significance of the presidential message.
And that’s subjective debate.
What could be more significant to someone out of work and suffering through arguably the worst recession since the pre-Reagan years, if not the Great Depression? Then again, infrastructure spending and some familiar economic themes are hardly in the same league as Wilson’s Fourteen Points of world peace or JFK’s race to the moon.
(Here’s a Real Clear Political list of 10 meaningful presidential addresses, going back to John Adams in May 1797)
Fourth and finally, did the President say anything new? Not exactly.
As usual, he went after corporations and the wealthy for not paying their fair share of taxes. He wants more teachers hired (how that grows the economy, he never explains – other than the South Koreans are doing it, so should we). He wants America to be competitive, innovative. In this Administration’s mindset, government has to spend money to make money.
Will it sell with Congress? There’s precious little common ground.
Will it sell with the voting public? Yes and no.
Independents will like the feel-good bipartisanship vibe; they won’t like how fast that comity vanishes.
Democrats will like the $450 billion in spending and their party’s leader throwing down the gauntlet to the loyal opposition.
Republicans will find little to like – then again, the purpose of this exercise was to rally the Democratic base and sway purple-state agnostics, not convert the red-state masses.
And that chorus of cynical voters?
It’s hard to seem them buying into the President’s admonition that Washington can work together, mend the economy, spend $450 billion and cut $1.5 trillion – all at the same time.
For a presidency in love with optics, this was yet another speech more about appearance than results. If the goal were meaningful progress, the President would have huddled with congressional leadership in the month since he announced plans for a big September speech, rather than barely reaching out to the Republican leaders.
And he would have found a way to turn back time.
Many summers ago, another Democratic president vexed by Republicans on Capitol Hill decided to do something other than get mad.
On July 26, 1948, Harry Truman – his approval rating sitting at 36%, which isn’t too far from Mr. Obama’s – called Congress back into session. By doing so, he called the GOP’s bluff to work on civil rights, Social Security and healthcare.
Watching tonight’s speech, one senses that Barack Obama missed an opportunity – instead of going to Martha’s Vineyard, to have stayed in Washington and press Congress for action on the jobs front by likewise keeping members in town.
Maybe that’s a ploy for next summer. But if the economy doesn’t improve by then and this President can’t get much done in Washington, the public might have tuned out long ago.
(photo credit: White House photo by Chuck Kennedy)