Obama's Highly Political Economy Speech

The president's speech was more about establishing the grounds for a fight with the GOP than it was about new policies.
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Sometimes a speech is designed to really do something -- to uplift, to rally, to comfort or heal, to lay out fresh plans and gird for a fight. And sometimes is more a part of a longer-term political-messaging strategy. Speaking in Galesburg, Illinois, Obama on Wednesday gave an economic speech designed to signal the beginning of a months-long effort to provide greater contrast with D.C. Republicans during an era of dug-in gridlock.

Republican National Committee Sean Spicer decried it as "just more of the same blame and finger pointing."

But it wasn't, not really. It was new blame and finger pointing.

"The fact is there are Republicans in Congress right now who privately agree with me on a lot of the ideas I'll be proposing," the president said. "I know because they've said so. But they worry they'll face swift political retaliation for cooperating with me.

"Now," he continued, "there are others who will dismiss every idea I put forward either because they're playing to their most strident supporters, or in some cases because, sincerely, they have a fundamentally different vision for America -- one that says inequality is both inevitable and just; one that says an unfettered free market without any restraints inevitably produces the best outcomes, regardless of the pain and uncertainty imposed on ordinary families; and government is the problem and we should just shrink it as small as we can.

"In either case, I say to these members of Congress:  I'm laying out my ideas to give the middle class a better shot.  So now it's time for you to lay out your ideas. You can't just be against something. You got to be for something."

The Galesburg speech was also a bit of a turkducken: a speech about Washington gridlock wrapped in a speech about the economy wrapped in a speech about the flow of history. Some day someone will write an entire academic essay about Obama's relationship with the idea of time and history. All political leaders talk about the future and the American past, but Obama has a particular fondness for the long view, and a reflective approach in which he draws people into his process of thinking about the politics of an issue.

"What we need is not a three-month plan, or even a three-year plan; we need a long-term American strategy, based on steady, persistent effort, to reverse the forces that have conspired against the middle class for decades. That has to be our project," Obama said in Illinois. "And we'll need Republicans in Congress to set aside short-term politics and work with me to find common ground.... it's not enough for you just to oppose me. You got to be for something. What are your ideas?"

Republicans pointed to their plan that they say will immediately grow the economy, by focusing on the offshore energy sector and the Keystone XL pipeline.

The Galesburg speech isn't likely to do much to end the Washington gridlock the president decried in it. But it may help the president begin to fight his way out of the hole into which his opponents have begun to drag him.
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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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