Obama is right in tackling the problem of economic mobility — the need to “build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class for all who are willing to climb them.” And he raised some unavoidable issues: early childhood education and job training. But, so far, there are no details attached to these proposals that would allow an assessment of their seriousness and cost.
Such vagueness suffused the speech. If Congress refuses to move on climate change, Obama didn’t promise to act. He promised to “direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions.” He didn’t pledge voting rights enforcement. He proposed “a nonpartisan commission to improve the voting experience in America.” Instead of proposing actual plans, he issued “a new goal for America: Let’s cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses,” and “a new challenge to redesign America’s high schools.” “We’ll work with local leaders,” he said, “to target resources at public safety” and “my administration will begin to partner with 20 of the hardest-hit towns.”
Executive directives like these — “my administration will begin to partner” — involve a diminution of the executive and indicate a weak policy process. It is something I occasionally encountered when I was head of White House speechwriting.