Barack Obama is often a great communicator. But when it comes to discussions about the sorry state of the economy, he has failed to connect.
Obama, who proved so remarkably agile when it came to discussing America’s place in the world, and whose ability to add a few grace notes to the country’s stilted dialogue about race made even his critics begin to see him as presidential, has since January 20, 2009, struggled to connect with Americans who worry not about the job they lost but about whether they will ever work again.
The current jobs crisis—and, make no mistake, from Toledo to Tulsa to Tarpon Springs, this crisis is real, and getting more real by the minute—has weighed on Obama from the first day of his presidency. And he has never been able to find the right words.
Yes, yes, of course, deeds mean more than words, especially when the official unemployment rate is 9.2 percent, and the real rate (including the underemployed and those who have given up on the search for work) is 16.2 percent.
But even when Obama has gotten things right, as he did with the 2009 infusion of federal funds that allowed local governments and schools nationwide to keep functioning, he has gotten the language all wrong.
That infusion of federal cash was called a “stimulus.”
It is hard to imagine a worse word choice. People didn’t want “stimulus.” They wanted work.
The ill-defined yet definitionally bureaucratic word “stimulus” confused and alienated Americans. It sounded like a new variation on the Bush-Cheney administration bailouts of Wall Street and the big banks, which was supposed to “stimulate” lending but instead took from the poor and gave to the rich—who were not even polite enough to say “thank you” as they rushed to deposit the checks.
So it was that, even as Obama tried to do what was necessary, he got the message all wrong.
So wrong that, when it came time to begin investing in actual job creation (as opposed to stabilizing moves that were designed to prevent more layoffs), Obama found himself struggling to overcome the impression that he was wasting money as wantonly as Bush, Cheney, John Boehner and Paul Ryan did on tax cuts for the rich and bailouts for the banks.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who has proven to be a steadier and savvier player than the other top Democrats in DC, recently signaled that she will no longer use the word” stimulus.”
Pelosi understand that the word is toxic—or, as the Washington newspaper The Hill suggested in its report on Pelosi’s move, “close to a dirty word.”
She also understands something else: President Obama and the Democrats have lost a lot of ground because of a failure to focus on fundamentals.
Pelosi has been pushing for a “go big” jobs plan. And indications are that Obama will embrace at least some elements of it—although not all of it. That will horrify congressional Republicans and Fox News pundits. But it won’t bother the American people, who have made their sentiments abundantly clear in polls that indicate job creation is far more important to them than deficit reduction.
The people “get it.” And so should Obama.
When there is a jobs crisis, the president’s job is to do something about it. In fact, when there is a jobs crisis, the president’s job is to do everything about it.
He ought not mangle the mission by using the empty language of accountants and or the compromised language of political strategists.
He ought not obscure the goal by going off-topic to discuss how he wants to pay for absolutely essential endeavors. Franklin Roosevelt did not prattle on about the cost of responding to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Lyndon Johnson did not get bogged down with discussions about the cost of implementing a civil rights agenda or a war on poverty—except to suggest that the cost of not acting would be far greater than the cost of doing what was right and necessary.
Even when presidents have been wrong, as Ronald Reagan was when he tried to sell his budget-busting weapons systems in the 1980s, as George Bush was when he prepared for war with Iraq, they don’t get lost in a cost-benefits analysis.
Presidents who are interested in accomplishing something talk about what needs to be done—not about accounting, and not about political calculations.
The United States is not broke. It is a wealthy country with immense resources. It has the money to wage wars of whim. It has the money to provide bailouts for speculators and bogus bankers. It can certainly pay for the jobs program that is needed to restore confidence and economic strength to a country that cannot afford to neglect the real issue: unemployment.
The United States is not so factionalized that it cannot function. The president has an allied Senate and allies in the House. More importantly, he has the bully pulpit that allows him to speak over the Congress to the American people. He can demand action, and he will get it if his proposals are sufficiently bold to grab the imagination of the American people.
A speech that uses the word “stimulus” will not excite anyone.
A speech that dumbs down the message in order to find room for “compromise” will achieve no compromise.
A speech that tries to repurpose George Bush’s failed ideas—“free trade,” “tax cuts,” “tax credits,” “deregulation”—will be heard as more of the same. It will not inspire the people to demand the policies and programs that create jobs: massive infrastructure investment, youth employment programs, increased funding for state and local government and education and the freeing up of credit for small businesses and domestic manufacturers that make a commitment to keep jobs in America.
Obama should talk about one issue Thursday night: jobs.
This is not a budget address. This is not a speech that can or should tailored to appeal to those who oppose his programs—or who simply oppose him. This is a speech that must connect with, excite and inspire the great mass of Americans who—according to recent polling by media outlets and groups such as the Alliance for American Manufacturing—want him to lead the charge for industrial renewal, infrastructure investment, jobs initiatives, education and loan programs that are designed to put people to work.