Charlie Leonard: Time to hear from a president, not a campaign
September 8, 2011
Tonight, in prime time, the president will address a joint session of the House and Senate on his proposals for reducing the nation’s chronic unemployment. Other than his State of the Union speeches, this will be only the second time that President Obama has asked to address the entire Congress.
On the occasion of his first joint session speech in 2009, the president appeared before a House and Senate both controlled by Democrats. In that speech, the president made his case for a $787 government-spending program that Democrats quickly approved with almost no Republican support.
Immediately after the president’s speech, White House advisors said the spending plan would keep unemployment under 8 percent. At the time, the national jobless figure was at a 16 year high of 7.2 percent and climbing.
As we now know, that massive burst of government spending, all of which was borrowed money, failed to slow the rising tide of unemployment. In fact, by the end of 2009, unemployment topped 10 percent.
The most recent numbers peg our joblessness at 9.1, percent or about 14 million Americans looking for work. When you add the underemployed, or people who are not working full time but want to be to that base number, the Labor Department reports that more than 15 percent of the U.S. work force is without the employment it needs and wants.
Throughout this period, the president has said several things about the failure of his massive spending program to lower the nation’s unemployment: He has said that the stimulus needed more time to work than he or his advisors first realized. He has said that even though unemployment remains high, it would have been much worse without the stimulus. In recent months, the president has also pointed to the Japanese tsunami and the European debt crisis for causing a drag on U.S. employment.
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The one thing the president has not said in these past two years is what else he might do, other than extend the small cut in payroll taxes and advocate for more unemployment benefits to foster job creation. (His press secretary actually said unemployment benefits help create jobs because beneficiaries spend all of that money as soon as they receive it.)
Tonight, this president has essentially one last chance to convince a divided Congress and a majority of the American people who disapprove of his economic performance that he understands how to put people back to work.
I have no idea what the president will say, but I do know this much: When the history of this speech is written, it will likely be described one of two ways. It will either be a conciliatory address, with specific proposals that have a real chance of getting through the Congress, or it will be a largely partisan and rhetorical speech that excites the left wing of the president’s party but offers no concrete solutions upon which both Republicans and Democrats can agree. In other words, it will either be a presidential speech that genuinely seeks to unite the country around some centrist ideas, or it will be a campaign speech that offers virtually no hope of actually putting people back to work.
In order to sound presidential, Obama will need to acknowledge mistakes and avoid his penchant for blaming others. The president will need to genuinely embrace the essential role of business in our economy over the limited capabilities of the government. He will also need to commit sincerely to a change of course with respect to the taxation and regulation of the people and businesses that actually create jobs. And, the president will need to name one or more new advisors who have succeeded in business – something his administration has lacked since the first day he took office.
In contrast, if he gives a campaign speech, the president likely will rehash his demonization of business and finance in America. He will say that our inability to get the economy moving is because Congress is unwilling to increase taxes on millionaires and billionaires. And, if the president chooses a campaign speech over a presidential speech, he will put more government programs ahead of private-sector hiring incentives, guaranteeing that his proposals have no chance of passage.
By all current accounts, the people who are working to re-elect the president want candidate Obama to give a campaign speech.
As for the American people who are hardly working, my guess is they would prefer to hear from a president instead.
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