Kicking off a series of speeches on the economy, President Obama laid out a number of reforms--from raising the minimum wage to universal pre-school--that would require major legislation that no one expects to pass any time soon. But that was precisely the point: Obama strived to come across as a leader with a long-term vision for the future, criticizing Republicans for being short-sighted and petty by comparison.
Obama attempted throughout his speech to take the long view on America's economic problems. Yes, the financial crisis was awful, but it was essentially just a setback that exacerbated the fundamental problems we've been facing for decades: A hollowed out middle class, growing inequality, and the loss of economic security--"a sense that your hard work would be rewarded with fair wages and benefits, the chance to buy a home, to save for retirement," Obama said.
Fixing such structural problems will have historic impact, going well beyond the current recovery, the president continued in an address that stretched just over an hour Wednesday. "The choices that we, the people, make now will determine whether or not every American will have a fighting chance in the 21st century," he said. "To reverse the forces that have conspired against the middle class for decades--that has to be our project."
Obama ran through a litany of possibilities to fix the pillars of middle-class America, through more affordable education, higher wages, and more jobs. By the end, it felt more of a laundry list of ideas (universal broadband! mortgage refinancing! worker retraining!) than a legislative agenda. But the driving purpose of the speech was to contrast this vision for economic change with Republican preoccupations--spending cuts, political scandals, and the debt ceiling--and challenge them to describe their own long-term agenda.
"If you ask some of these Republicans about their economic agenda, or how they'd strengthen the middle class, they'll shift the topic to 'out-of-control' government spending...Short-term thinking and stale debates are not what this moment requires," the president said. Later, he explicitly laid down the gauntlet to the GOP: "I say to these members of Congress: I am laying out my ideas to give the middle class a better shot. Now it's time for you to lay out yours."
Obama's hope is that the public will see him as rising above the fray as Republicans insist on more spending cuts during the next budget and debt-ceiling battle, which economists describe as the most immediate threat to our economic health.
The risk is that Obama's grand economic vision could seem implausible even to ordinary Americans who agree with him, given the current state of gridlock in Congress: Raising the minimum wage seems like an awfully lofty target when lawmakers can't even figure out how to renew food stamps. And conservatives will point out that cuts to entitlement programs are integral to our economic growth down the road.
What's more, Obama's focus on long-term changes and the economy's structural flaws may seem out of touch to Americans who still feel like they're bearing the brunt of the most recent downturn. A new McClatchy-Marist poll showed that 54% of Americans believe that the economy is in a recession, even though it officially ended in June 2009.
Many economists would agree that overhauling education, infrastructure, and the labor force are integral to our long-term prosperity, as Obama stressed. But for the millions of Americans who feel they've been left behind in the current recovery, their short-term problems may be the most urgent ones--and they may still feel like our current lawmakers are to blame.
"Americans aren’t asking the question: ‘where are the speeches?’" House Speaker John Boehner said this morning, according to Politico, shortly before Obama's speech. " They’re asking, ‘where are the jobs?'"