This Speech Will Make The Difference

The New York Review of Books essay by Robert Johnson explains how Obama’s September 8th speech marks a turning point in national politics.

The speech itself was artful, passionate, and astute. President Obama acknowledged the current distrust of government very openly. Challenging Congress to do something that addressed job creation, he presented an economic vision to the American people that reflected an important role for government in reducing our 9 percent unemployment rate, while maintaining that this was not a plan to add to runaway debt. He declared his intention to ask the congressional super committee, created as part of the debt ceiling legislation in July, to reduce the deficit in future years by the same $447 billion that the President’s job legislation would require.

Johnson’s not delusional. He concedes the plan is only marginally stimulative and far too reliant on discredited Suppy-Side nonsense. But this is net judgment.

Yet it is the currency of votes that will matter in 2012. Obama’s speech was addressed to “the other 90 percent,” and is likely to help his reelection chances if he can convince voters to overcome their cynicism both about the efficiency of government action and about his own abilities. We can expect that the right-wing, generally pro-Republican media like Fox News will continue to disparage the capacity of government to create jobs and improve lives by repairing American infrastructure, as Sean Hannity and Frank Luntz did after the speech. Republicans will inevitably issue their own plans for job creation and these may diminish the impact of Obama’s speech.

Even so, Obama has done the country a service by trying to move the center of debate from austerity to employment and investment. If the President, as he visits towns and cities, is as clear and bold as he was before the joint session of Congress, I suspect that his speech might lead to the renewed national self-confidence that must be a crucial component of any economic recovery. If he is to convince voters that he is able to govern, he will have to rely much less on compromise and much more on public willingness to confront the Republicans, who have shown no serious willingness to collaborate with him. We can hope that with his back against the economic wall he will continue to find the capacity for boldness we glimpsed in his speech. If he does not, we have a great deal to fear.

Johnson should buck up. Maybe he’ll give another speech.