8:23am

Fri September 9, 2011
Opinion

The Nation: Obama's Speech Changes Conversation

Originally published on Fri September 9, 2011 6:53 am

Ari Berman is a contributing writer for The Nation magazine and an Investigative Journalism Fellow at The Nation Institute.

After a year of embracing austerity economics—emphasizing cutting spending and government over creating new jobs—Barack Obama belatedly tried to change the conversation with his big jobs speech Thursday night.

The introduction of the "American Jobs Act" was both a policy and rhetorical shift from the administration, away from the above the fray "most reasonable man in the room" strategy aimed at a narrow sliver of independent voters and toward a more aggressive, feistier Obama, one who is not afraid to run against the do-nothing Congress, take his case directly to the American people and ruffle a few feathers. It's the Obama, quite frankly, that many of his supporters have been waiting quite some time to see.

That's not to say everything about the speech or his plan was perfect.

Is the $450 billion legislation—an extension of unemployment benefits, an extension of the payroll tax cut, repairing schools and crumbling infrastructure, rehiring teachers and first responders, job training for the long-term unemployed, a tax cut for companies that hire new workers—big enough to spur a true economic recovery? Probably not. Half of it is tax cuts. Ezra Klein tweeted that "White house believes this plan would add one to two percentage points to GDP growth next year." But Harvard economist Jeffrey Liebman, a former Obama adviser, says "we need real GDP to grow at 4.5 percent a year for two years to bring the unemployment rate below 7 percent." So even if Obama's entire plan passed as is, there would still be more to do.

Will Obama's to-be-determined deficit speech undermine the momentum from his jobs speech? Perhaps. The president left open the possibility for significant changes to Medicare and Medicaid, which won't be popular with many Americans. The super-committee still has the power in Washington. Once its deadline nears, the conversation may once again revolve around deficits instead of jobs, especially since there's no built-in incentive forcing the committee to focus on jobs, as compared to the triggered spending cuts.

But for now, Obama's speech was an important first step in changing the conversation and defining the debate on his own terms. I particularly liked the section where he invoked Abraham Lincoln to argue for the essential role of government in America. Think of it as the president's long-awaited reply to the Tea Party. Said Obama:

We all remember Abraham Lincoln as the leader who saved our Union. But in the middle of a Civil War, he was also a leader who looked to the future—a Republican president who mobilized government to build the transcontinental railroad; launch the National Academy of Sciences; and set up the first land grant colleges. And leaders of both parties have followed the example he set.

Ask yourselves—where would we be right now if the people who sat here before us decided not to build our highways and our bridges; our dams and our airports? What would this country be like if we had chosen not to spend money on public high schools, or research universities, or community colleges? Millions of returning heroes, including my grandfather, had the opportunity to go to school because of the GI Bill. Where would we be if they hadn't had that chance?

How many jobs would it have cost us if past Congresses decided not to support the basic research that led to the Internet and the computer chip? What kind of country would this be if this Chamber had voted down Social Security or Medicare just because it violated some rigid idea about what government could or could not do? How many Americans would have suffered as a result?

No single individual built America on their own. We built it together. We have been, and always will be, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all; a nation with responsibilities to ourselves and with responsibilities to one another. Members of Congress, it is time for us to meet our responsibilities.

Obama returned to the theme of shared sacrifice and contrasted the conservative view of the economy, "that the only solution to our economic challenges is to simply cut most government spending and eliminate most government regulations," with his own. Said the president:

But what we can't do—what I won't do—is let this economic crisis be used as an excuse to wipe out the basic protections that Americans have counted on for decades. I reject the idea that we need to ask people to choose between their jobs and their safety. I reject the argument that says for the economy to grow, we have to roll back protections that ban hidden fees by credit card companies, or rules that keep our kids from being exposed to mercury, or laws that prevent the health insurance industry from shortchanging patients. I reject the idea that we have to strip away collective bargaining rights to compete in a global economy. We shouldn't be in a race to the bottom, where we try to offer the cheapest labor and the worst pollution standards. America should be in a race to the top. And I believe that's a race we can win.

If the choice next November is between Obama in this speech vs. Republicans in Congress or the GOP hopefuls debating last night, Obama will win.

Copyright 2011 The Nation. To see more, visit http://www.thenation.com/.