The Obama jobs speech: Turning point or pep rally?

President Obama’s jobs speech was only a start and a late one at that. But let’s not quibble. At its core, the most important address the president has delivered in months was heartily encouraging. First and foremost, the president, for whom aloofness and diffidence seemingly come almost reflexively, was clearly engaged. More than that, he ...

Kevin Lamarque-Pool/Getty Images
Kevin Lamarque-Pool/Getty Images
Kevin Lamarque-Pool/Getty Images

President Obama's jobs speech was only a start and a late one at that. But let's not quibble. At its core, the most important address the president has delivered in months was heartily encouraging.

First and foremost, the president, for whom aloofness and diffidence seemingly come almost reflexively, was clearly engaged. More than that, he was passionate. More than that, he himself promised that the speech was only the beginning, that he was going to take his message to every corner of the country. 

Finally. 

President Obama’s jobs speech was only a start and a late one at that. But let’s not quibble. At its core, the most important address the president has delivered in months was heartily encouraging.

First and foremost, the president, for whom aloofness and diffidence seemingly come almost reflexively, was clearly engaged. More than that, he was passionate. More than that, he himself promised that the speech was only the beginning, that he was going to take his message to every corner of the country. 

Finally. 

An energized and articulate president will take to the bully pulpit and seek to actually lead the people. He will not cede the debate about the role and size of government to those who perversely think the only way you can get government to help more is by having it do less. He will underscore where government can help and go to the people who need the assistance and ask them to do their part to be heard, to let Washington know that in a time of crisis like this they want and indeed expect an activist government.

Further, the president is suggesting he will no longer be a passive player in the economic debate. No more rope-a-dope. He has put together a package that while much too small was bigger than expected. He has done it with an eye toward balance and reason that should win bi-partisan support for some of its elements. And he has pledged to push for it until it or something like it gets passed.

While vague, it contained useful elements. The tax cuts, the elements most likely to pass, will be welcomed by workers and small business owners. The infrastructure bank is an important idea that we can only hope actually grows between the time the president submits his formal recommendations and the Congress offers a bill to sign. It too has bi-partisan support and should pass. It’s only the tip of the iceberg, of course. The United States should be investing vastly more in infrastructure … not just to get out of this crisis but to restore our competitiveness. We should be talking ultimately about hundreds of billions on that alone. More. A new national commitment to having the world’s best roads, airports, ports, bridges, IT and energy infrastructure, a program of redevelopment that should last a decade or more.

Should the trade deals pass? Of course. They are mostly symbolic but symbols are important too. The president should submit the deals to the Hill as soon as he can.

It was particularly encouraging to hear him talk about helping the housing markets. He was, admittedly, also pretty cloudy on that point.  But almost three years into a crisis that began with housing it is encouraging that someone is finally thinking about it. Nothing would do more to reverse America’s economic fortunes (and the world’s) than three or four straight months of rising housing starts, rising new home sales, rising existing home sales, rising home prices. That’s America’s  retirement program folks, that’s our savings program, that’s our jobs program. All wrapped up in one segment of the economy. Was it once over-priced? Yes. But until it regains energy all these other efforts are window dressing. 

The president also committed to pay for the expenditures out of future cuts. We’ll have to be careful there. But it’s the right idea, a key to passage and it came with a further promise of a comprehensive plan to address the deficit…another long overdue sign of presidential leadership.

At this point, it would be naïve to think the program will pass as proposed or that it alone will trigger an economic watershed or that one good speech can take a strangely passive administration and make it into the engine of change that many of us hoped it would be.

But it did remind us why we once harbored hope. And it even rekindled some of those hopes.  They’re tempered now by experience. So we know the most important element of last night’s speech hasn’t happened yet. That’s the follow-through. It’s the place too small ideas could still grow and where opponents can be persuaded to change their minds. It’s where we will determine whether last night’s joint session was a moment of historical import or just another Washington pep rally, a beginning or the beginning of the end of the Obama era. 

So, even as the applause dies down, we’ll remain right where we are, on the edge of our seats, cheering again until there is reason to stop because at a time when we need answers, the president has at least stepped up and offered the outlines of one.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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