Much as I admire Obama, the thought that would not leave me alone as I listened to his speech was "diminishing returns". It was a good campaign speech, beautifully delivered, and helped by the very flattering comparison with Bobby Jindal's weirdly robotic response. (How do they get people to accept this assignment?) But it was a speech we have now heard many times. The instant polling suggested that listeners loved it, which surprised me a little. People are inclined to be patient with Obama and know he is not to blame for the mess, but I wonder how much longer they will love this kind of speech. This time next year, an address so heavy on inspiration and so light on policy surely is not going to work.
Granted, one month in, Obama has on the books a massive and mostly good stimulus bill. It is not quite as big or as front-loaded as it looks, or as it should be--see my recent column in National Journal on this [link expires in ten days]. But a president who has got this done can hardly be accused of inactivity. High marks, then, on the stimulus. But where is the banking plan, without which the stimulus won't work? Barring a perceptible uptick in the anti-banker rhetoric, nothing new on that in the speech.
We heard increasingly confident commitments on healthcare reform, education reform, and alternative energy--all of them potentially very costly, with expenses going way beyond the supposedly temporary provisions in the stimulus. This alongside a restatement of the new promise to halve the deficit to around $500bn by the end of 2012. I am struggling to see how those things fit together, unless Obama is planning much bigger tax increases than he has so far indicated. And, by the way, why promise to halve the deficit by 2012 in any case? Premature efforts to rein in the budget deficit pushed Japan back into recession during its Long Slowdown. It is too soon to know when or how quickly borrowing should be brought back under control. But it is not too soon to start thinking about how it should be done, when the time is right. I don't doubt that the administration is indeed thinking hard about that. It just isn't telling anybody else just yet.
Maybe the budget "blueprint" will tell us more...