To say that expectations are low heading into Barack Obama’s speech tonight to a joint session of Congress is to engage in the art of pointed understatement. Never in the history of extraordinary joint-session speeches has so little been expected of a President. Even before his joint-session speech two years ago on the topic of health-care reform, the White House stoked speculation that Obama had a new plan that would change the debate. Instead, he delivered an ambiguous, rambling series of platitudes and generalities that created more problems for Democrats than it solved.
The Washington Post reports that Obama believes that he can turn his political fortunes around just by giving The Big Speech:
Barack Obama has been here before — politically endangered, doubts mounting about his leadership, and a growing sense that, for all his promise, he has lost his way.
As he has done before — whether to salvage a candidacy or revive a policy — Obama will resort to a device that has been successful for him in the past: the Big Speech.
With most of the country saying he has mismanaged the economy, President Obama will use an address to a joint session of Congress on Thursday to outline his plan to create jobs and head off a second recession. It will be the fifth time Obama has spoken to a joint session, the howitzer of the presidential communications arsenal.
But the risks this time are as high as the potential for any reward.
It’s the fifth joint-session speech, but two of those were State of the Union addresses and the third was the traditional “budget message” from a newly-inaugurated President that takes place in lieu of a SOTU address. But Obama’s problem with the big-speech strategy goes well beyond the Capitol Hill setting. The RNC reminds us that Obama used the infrastructure-as-stimulus argument repeatedly. It was a year ago today in Parma, Ohio when Obama said this:
He said a lot of other things in Parma that we’re likely to hear again tonight, too:
“And so people are frustrated, and they’re angry, and they’re anxious about the future. I understand that. I also understand that in a political campaign, the easiest thing for the other side to do is to ride this fear and anger all the way to election day.”
“Now, let me give you another example. We want to put more Americans back to work rebuilding America: our roads, our railways, our runways. When the housing sector collapsed and the recession hit, one in every four jobs lost were in the construction industry. That’s partly why our economic plan has invested in badly needed infrastructure projects over the last 19 months, not just roads and bridges, but high-speed railroads and expanded broadband access. Altogether, these projects have led to thousands of good private sector jobs, especially for those in the trades.”
“Now, there are still thousands of miles of railroads and railways and runways left to repair and improve. And engineers, economists, Governors, mayors of every political stripe believe that if we want to compete in this global economy, we need to rebuild this vital infrastructure. There is no reason Europe or China should have the fastest trains or the most modern airports. We want to put America to work building them right here in America.”
Does it have to be a rerun? No. Obama could seize control of the narrative by offering something new, concrete, and effective. The best way to do that would be to unleash American energy exploration, extraction, and production, but Obama opposes that too fundamentally to make that shift. He could also repeal ObamaCare and Dodd-Frank and put a leash on the EPA and NLRB, but he’s counting on regulatory adventurism to accomplish his agenda now that Congress will block it. Don’t expect any wiggle on the two areas that are wreaking the most damage on the economy.
However, Obama might decide to go all in on tax reform, an area that could bring plenty of benefit to both parties. If Obama proposes to significantly lower rates in the corporate and personal income tax while eliminating most of the deductions inserted by social-engineering politicians over the last several decades, it would make the investment environment more clear and compliance much less onerous. Republicans would be able to claim victory with lower rates and a broadened tax base; Democrats could brag about cutting off corporate welfare in the tax code. That would at least give Obama some political momentum on Capitol Hill and make this speech different from practically every other speech he’s made over the last three years on the economy.
Even if he does, though, Obama will need to produce a scoreable plan for the CBO. Don’t forget that Obama’s last big speech on deficit reduction in April ended up being so ambiguous that no one could score his proposals, and that Obama still hasn’t produced a plan from that speech. If Obama ends up delivering another series of ambiguous wish lists and a demand for another $400 billion in pork and bailouts, not only will viewers start tuning in the Packers-Saints pregame show, voters will tune out Obama for good for the next two seasons.