In his address to Congress and the American people, President Obama delivered a strong statement on the need for government to act “boldly and wisely” to lift us out of our current crisis.
In a speech that rightly focused on the recession, Obama acted almost as Explainer in Chief in laying out his short- and long-term plans for American reconstruction. He championed a recovery plan that he said had already begun to put people to work, and he vowed that his mortgage initiative would give aid only to those who are in trouble through no fault of their own. He condemned the Bush administration’s bank bailout, using populist rhetoric against shameless Wall Street profiteers.
Obama then made a powerful case for sustained public investment in areas vital to our future–in the transition to renewable energy, reform of our broken healthcare system and guarantee of world-class education from childhood through college. Despite public concern about rising deficits, and Beltway pundits calling on Obama to limit his agenda, he refused to back down from his campaign pledges.
In a riff not heard from a president since Roosevelt, Obama scorned the greed of wealthy CEOs and made the case that activist government has long been the signature of American success: “I reject the view that says our problems will simply take care of themselves, that says government has no role in laying the foundation for our common prosperity, for history tells a different story. History reminds us that, at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas.”
The Republican response, from Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, once again recycled the discredited conservative mantra that government can’t work. Jindal, who demonstrated how the GOP has become the party of No when he refused to accept recovery-plan funding to extend unemployment benefits to part-time workers, proved that his party is clueless about what to do or say about the debacle it created.
Obama’s speech, while powerful in arguing for an activist government, still raised questions about whether the administration is acting “boldly and wisely” enough. His actions seem too cautious for the times. The stimulus is too small, diluted by ineffective tax cuts that will produce few jobs. The financial rescue plan has not yet embraced the decisive government action needed to reorganize the zombie banks and get the credit system flowing.
Obama pledged to halve the deficit by the end of his first term, largely by doing the right thing–cutting military spending on Iraq, eliminating insurance company subsidies, reducing agribusiness giveaways and raising taxes on the wealthy. But to accept as a principle that the deficit is a crucial problem is exceedingly dangerous; a premature focus on budget-balancing could deepen what is the worst recession in a generation.
Foreign policy understandably got little attention in the speech. But the costs of escalating our presence in Afghanistan could suck us into a quagmire that sinks our domestic hopes. Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty was lost in the jungles of Vietnam. We must work to ensure that Obama’s investment in America’s future isn’t squandered in the mountains of Afghanistan.
But these questions should not distract from what was an eloquent call to mobilize Americans for a new era of progressive reform and common purpose.