President Obama did not say anything particularly new in his unprecedented deficit address to the nation on Monday night. The most significant moment came not in an original announcement or last-minute proposal, but in the president’s request that Americans actually get up, get involved and ask Congress to lay off the insanity.
“I’m asking you all to make your voice heard,” the president said near the end of the address.
“If you want a balanced approach to reducing the deficit, let your Member of Congress know,” Obama continued, “If you believe we can solve this problem through compromise—send that message.”
Even for a politician who ran on his (brief) history as a grassroots organizer, that is unusual. It may really help—there were reports of Congressional websites crashing from traffic spikes on Monday night, according to the Huffington Post’s Howard Fineman.
The potential problem, however, is that while Obama admirably walked through the facts on deficits and default, he did not offer a clear, single, final offer for would-be supporters to rally around.
This was a speech that talked about the roads not taken as much as the road ahead. Take this meandering couplet:
Congress now has one week left to act, and there are still paths forward. The Senate has introduced a plan to avoid default, which makes a down payment on deficit reduction and ensures that we don’t have to go through this again in six months. I think that’s a much better path, although serious deficit reduction would still require us to tackle the tough challenges of entitlement and tax reform. Either way…
And on it went, as Obama narrated negotiations that even political junkies can’t keep straight.
Obama also reminisced about the other presidents who ran up deficits and then raised the roof, quoting Reagan on policy and Jefferson on philosophy. In the end, the focus on process over tangible goals is most evident in a picture of Obama’s verbal priorities.
This chart, based on the frequency of Obama’s word choices, does not suggest a single, overarching goal. After the obligatory salutes to Americans, the takeaway is more about technocratic process than a key priority at stake, or a hardball closing argument.
Apparently, it all comes down to our approach.
The Nation’s Ari Melber debated Obama’s speech with former Bush aide David Frum on MSNBC’s The Last Word on Monday night: