Okay, I’ve read the speech again. Last night, my response was heavily weighted toward the empty rhetorical parts of the speech–the language that was supposed to inspire me, but left me cold. I haven’t really changed my mind about that, but I took a closer look at the first two-thirds of the speech, and I drew some additional conclusions.
As others have already noted, and this is particularly notable in light of the horrible jobs report this morning, there was nothing in the speech particularly relevant to the unemployment situation. I am not surprised that President Obama didn’t call for more fiscal stimulus. But there was no proposal to tackle underwater mortgages (which I would favor), nor a call for additional monetary stimulus (which I have more reservations about, but would certainly like to see debated), nor for reducing the tax and regulatory burden on employment (permanent cut in the payroll tax, offset by a VAT to be phased in over several years?), nor … well, anything, really.
This doesn’t really surprise me, because the line President Obama has been taking since he passed the stimulus bill was: now let’s focus on structural issues. Health care. Education. The long-term deficit. And I’m temperamentally inclined to agree with that approach, both because I think improving current perceptions of the long-term outlook really will improve the short-term economy, and because I think the crisis we went through was the fruit of structural imbalances that built up over a long time, and if we don’t want a recurrence then we need to tackle those imbalances.
But I thought I’d hear something about the short-term situation. Because the short-term situation is lousy. And there wasn’t anything, other than a call for patience. Which made me wonder . . . why?
One possible reason is: Obama didn’t want to promise anything he can’t deliver, and he expects to face a Republican Congress that won’t go along with anything he might propose. But there are things he can deliver without Congressional involvement, and anyway, there’s an election in progress for Congress as well. It wouldn’t be terrible for Obama to give people a reason to vote the straight Democratic ticket.
Another possible reason is: Obama doesn’t want to draw attention to things he didn’t do. He didn’t believe monetary policy could do any more good at the start of his term, so he can’t talk about monetary policy now. He didn’t want to take aggressive action to deal with underwater mortgages directly earlier in his term, so he can’t talk about cram-downs now. And so forth. If this is part of the reason, it’s a bad reason. Voters are interested in what you are going to do for them. They are not going to focus on, “then why haven’t you done that yet?” – not if your proposed action is something your opponent opposes.
It’s also possible that Obama doesn’t believe these actions would be wise – that he actually believes in the centrist consensus approach to the crisis, rather than merely deferring to it. Or he may have just been playing it safe. I don’t know the reason for the omission–but the fact of it is striking.
The consequences of this omission are actually broader than merely missing an opportunity to rebut the Republican charge that he doesn’t have a response to lingering high unemployment. Without a domestic agenda that speaks to voters’ core economic concerns right now, the remaining rationale for reelection boils down to: vote for me so that what I’ve already done isn’t undone.
After all, Mitt Romney is running on nothing more than doing the opposite of whatever Obama did. There are no ideas; there’s no positive agenda. Romney provided absolutely nothing by way of a plan to address our economic problems–he just said everything Obama did was wrong, and should be reversed. His budget proposals are wildly self-contradictory. There’s nothing there.
So: vote Republican if you think the economy will heal itself if only you undo everything President Obama did, if you think we shouldn’t have imposed regulations on Wall Street, shouldn’t have bailed out Detroit, shouldn’t have passed the ACA, etc. And vote Democrat to prevent that from happening, and preserve the achievements of the first term–which you might think are positive (and I mostly do) even if you think they are insufficient.
Of course, there is one thing on the second-term agenda: a “grand bargain” to reduce the long-term structural deficit. But by making this his primary second-term agenda goal, President Obama has effectively ceded control of that agenda to the opposition party in Congress. This is one promise he emphatically can’t deliver on alone (unless he’s willing to simply let sequestration do the work), and by framing it in terms of a bargain, he’s basically telling his own party: I’m not going to make you take all the risks on this one like I did on healthcare, because this isn’t a longstanding Democratic goal like healthcare was.
There is precious little chance I will be voting for Mitt Romney this year. He’s really given me no reason to do so–and lots of reasons not to. But if I were a partisan Democrat, I would not be happy with the way President Obama framed this election last night.