Bill Whalen

Big Speech, Little Upside

If you were suffering from a serious malady, you wouldn’t trust a doctor who diagnosed that a good night’s rest cures all.

Similarly, never trust a politician who sells a big speech as a panacea.

Not that the Obama White House is offering the President’s Thursday night oration as a magical elixir to the nation’s 9% unemployment and zero jobs growth.

But as the big moment draws near, it’s evident that Team Obama has overplayed its hand.

Thursday’s address before a joint session of Congress in and of itself probably won’t be a game-changer in terms of soft presidential poll numbers. It might not even be enough to keep folks from changing the channel to the Saints-Packers’ pre-game show (which already has NBC affiliates in Wisconsin in a bind).

So what will the speech have to offer? In honor of my niece’s pending nuptials: “something old, something new; something borrowed, something blue”.

The old? Look for the union label. “We’ve got roads and bridges across this country that need rebuilding,” Obama told a Labor Day rally of unionists. “We’ve got more than 1 million unemployed construction workers ready to get dirty right now.” Last Labor Day, Obama rolled out a $50 billion infrastructure plan. Thursday night should bring more of the same. The question: with a Congress badly divided and in no mood to spend, what can Obama really do on the shovel-ready front, other thansome fancy executive-branch footwork?

The new? Well, “new” in the sense that Obama will say something that reaches across the aisle – bipartisan goodwill and all that. House Republicans know this; already, they’ve tried to pre-empt the President’s move by offering some ideas of their own – free trade, construction permit reform, eliminating infrastructure set-asides. See if any of that actually surfaces in the delivered remarks.

The borrowed? Look for Obama to look beyond the Beltway for support – specifically, the Georgia Work$ worker-training program. Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor reportedly like the concept. That said, the program has its critics (and there’s a question of whether George Work$ works all that well as a reliable pipeline to long-term employment).

The blue? That’s easy: sucking up to blue-state America and a deflated Democratic base. Again, let’s go back to that Labor Day speech in Detroit. Obama took credit for cutting middle-class taxes, beat up on big banks and credit-card issuers, talked up keeping teachers on the job, extolled the virtues of universal health care, and declared Michigan on the road to recovery.

And he added this partisan nugget:

We’re going to see if congressional Republicans will put country before party. We’ll give them a plan, and then we’ll say, do you want to create jobs? Then put our construction workers back to work rebuilding America. Do you want to help our companies succeed? Open up new markets for them to sell their products. You want – you say you’re the party of tax cuts? Well then, prove you’ll fight just as hard for tax cuts for middle-class families as you do for oil companies and the most affluent Americans. Show us what you got.

Obama won’t be that overtly partisan on Thursday night – not before a national audience.

Sadly, what he might be: an oratorical hash slinger. That’s because his speech most likely will be a garble of competing ideas and competing political concerns – like that strange stew your college dining hall served at the end of the week, consisting of the previous nights’ entrees and offered for no better reason than that was all that’s available – and someone might actually eat it.

And something else Obama might be: George H.W. Bush, absent the J. Press suits and nice home in Maine.

Consider these three mistakes by “Bush 41”, not coincidentally the last first-term president to be denied re-election, and their parallels to POTUS 44.

  1. In the weeks leading up to his final State of the Union Address, Bush promised a new economic blueprint. The President’s handlers raised expectations that something big was astir. Instead, the speech laid an egg. The ideas weren’t exactly transformative – capital-gains tax cut, tax credit for first-time homebuyers, health-insurance tax credit for poor families, moratorium on new government regulations on business.
  2. Shortly after Labor Day, Team Bush hyped another speaking engagement – a Sept. 10 appearance at the Detroit Economic Club. Again, the speech was sold as a something big. Again, it flopped (an “Agenda for American Renewal” that dealt with free trade, education and training, economic security, “rightsizing” government).
  3. And throughout 1992 (as is the case in 2011), the President struggled with his political tone and tenor. The same George Bush who had worked with Democrats on a budget agreement, now assailed the legislative branch. Inspeeches and radio addresses, Bush challenged Congress to “lead, follow or get out of the way” on such matters as tort reform, budget rescissions and ending PAC contributions.  The problem: it just didn’t sound right, coming from the statesmanlike Bush. Moreover, given the choice of tossing an individual (the President) or an entire institution (Congress), voters found it far more convenient to jettison the former, not the latter.

And that’s troubling news for Obama, considering that voters have tinkered with the institutional side of Washington (changing control of at least one chamber of Congress now) twice now in the last two election cycles.

If Thursday’s speech and subsequent attempts at image rehabilitation continue to fail, those same voters may start looking at a different kind of fix.

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