President-elect Barack Obama’s speech this morning on the basic outlines of his economic stimulus package was a carefully crafted appeal that mildly but unmistakably laid out battlelines for the consideration of congressional Republicans who have been spoiling for a fight.
Stressing the urgency of action and the scope of the problem and the consequences of inaction, and bluntly asserting the central and indispensible role of government in the recovery, Obama’s speech anticipates every criticism he’s going to get from the Right: he’s moving too fast, he’s spending too much, he’s expanding government rather than putting money in the pockets of businesses and families, etc., etc.
On the scope of the crisis and the timing of action:
If nothing is done, this recession could linger for years. The unemployment rate could reach double digits. Our economy could fall $1 trillion short of its full capacity, which translates into more than $12,000 in lost income for a family of four. We could lose a generation of potential and promise, as more young Americans are forced to forgo dreams of college or the chance to train for the jobs of the future. And our nation could lose the competitive edge that has served as a foundation for our strength and standing in the world.
In short, a bad situation could become dramatically worse.
On the role of government:
It is true that we cannot depend on government alone to create jobs or long-term growth, but at this particular moment, only government can provide the short-term boost necessary to lift us from a recession this deep and severe. Only government can break the vicious cycles that are crippling our economy – where a lack of spending leads to lost jobs which leads to even less spending; where an inability to lend and borrow stops growth and leads to even less credit.
On budget deficits:
There is no doubt that the cost of this plan will be considerable. It will certainly add to the budget deficit in the short-term. But equally certain are the consequences of doing too little or nothing at all, for that will lead to an even greater deficit of jobs, incomes, and confidence in our economy….
We have to make tough choices and smart investments today so that as the economy recovers, the deficit starts to come down. We cannot have a solid recovery if our people and our businesses don’t have confidence that we’re getting our fiscal house in order. That’s why our goal is not to create a slew of new government programs, but a foundation for long-term economic growth.
On “unnecessary spending” or “make-work:”
It’s a plan that recognizes both the paradox and the promise of this moment – the fact that there are millions of Americans trying to find work, even as, all around the country, there is so much work to be done. That’s why we’ll invest in priorities like energy and education; health care and a new infrastructure that are necessary to keep us strong and competitive in the 21st century. That’s why the overwhelming majority of the jobs created will be in the private sector, while our plan will save the public sector jobs of teachers, cops, firefighters and others who provide vital services.
And on the relationship of this package to past stimulus and “bailout” efforts:
I understand that some might be skeptical of this plan. Our government has already spent a good deal of money, but we haven’t yet seen that translate into more jobs or higher incomes or renewed confidence in our economy. That’s why the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan won’t just throw money at our problems – we’ll invest in what works. The true test of the policies we’ll pursue won’t be whether they’re Democratic or Republican ideas, but whether they create jobs, grow our economy, and put the American Dream within reach of the American people.
Instead of politicians doling out money behind a veil of secrecy, decisions about where we invest will be made transparently, and informed by independent experts wherever possible. Every American will be able to hold Washington accountable for these decisions by going online to see how and where their tax dollars are being spent
This last section represents a theme that will be very important in selling the stimulus package. Obama knows that the $700 billion bailout of the financial system in September, which he supported, remains unpopular, because no one really understands it, and because it did not tangibly benefit the middle class, even as it benefitted some of the very people and institutions that had failed the country. He’s moving now to distinguish this “Bush bailout” from his own efforts.
There’s also one theme that’s not in the speech which could well be significant. There’s no begging of Congress or of Republicans to come up with their own plans; no opening bid for compromise; no words of respect for the wisdom of senior figures in Washington. The only reference to “bipartisanship” is here:
That’s why I’m calling on all Americans – Democrats and Republicans – to put good ideas ahead of the old ideological battles; a sense of common purpose above the same narrow partisanship; and insist that the first question each of us asks isn’t “What’s good for me?” but “What’s good for the country my children will inherit?”
This is arguably the sort of “grassroots bipartisanship” aimed at generating public support that I’ve hypothesized as central to Obama’s politics, aimed at pressuring Congress to enact his own plan without large modifications.
And he’s off to a good start with the public:
By a large majority, voters favor President-elect Barack Obama’s wide-ranging policy prescriptions to aid the faltering economy, according to a new Politico/Allstate poll.
The survey of 1,007 registered voters conducted Dec. 27-29 showed that 79 percent of respondents favored Obama’s plan. The president-elect is advocating a $775 billion stimulus that includes a major investment in infrastructure projects and alternative energy as well as middle-class tax cuts, job training and health care reform.
Nearly 90 percent said they are either somewhat or very dissatisfied with the current state of the economy, and more than 60 percent said the country is heading down the wrong track. But while voters are cynical about the present, 56 percent expressed confidence that the economy will improve significantly in the next 12 months….
Obama’s favorability ratings remain high, with 63 percent of respondents holding a positive view of the president-elect and only 18 percent voicing a negative one.
Democrats in Congress, however, garnered positive ratings from just 41 percent of those surveyed, while their GOP counterparts registered only 24 percent. Meanwhile, large corporations rate positively among only 21 percent of voters, with 51 percent expressing negative feelings.
It appears that Obama and his advisors understand this climate of public opinion, and are determined not to let the stimulus package look like past bailouts, or consign it to the sovereign will of the congressional sausage factory.
And this initial sales pitch by Obama really does pose a direct challenge, even in the guise of an outstretched hand, to Republicans. They’ve spent much of the last two months convincing themselves that Obama, like Bill Clinton sixteen years ago, can be vanquished by a hard line against “government,” against “spending,” against cooperation, and against “Washington.” But Obama’s making every effort to identify “Washington” with the irresponsibility and ideological folly of the GOP itself, not by naming names, but by identifying the devil and letting Republicans put on their horns.