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Obama’s Economic Speech: What’s Missing

Jonathan Cohn is right that Obama’s much-touted June 14 economic speech presented a devastating but truthful and fair critique of Mitt Romney’s economic plan. Noam Scheiber is right that political commentators who fault the speech for lacking poetry or novelty are missing the point: This speech was intended to delineate, in simple, direct terms, the differences between Obama’s approach to the economy and Romney’s. (Political commentators are notorious for being bored by recitations of policy differences.) But Bill Galston is kind of right, too, when he says that Obama didn’t put enough emphasis on the accomplishments of his first term.

Obama’s speech did, in fact, include a recitation of accomplishments:

“Over the last three years, I’ve cut taxes for the typical working family by $3,600. (Applause.) I’ve cut taxes for small businesses 18 times. (Applause.) I have approved fewer regulations in the first three years of my presidency than my Republican predecessor did in his. And I’m implementing over 500 reforms to fix regulations that were costing folks too much for no reason.... I’ve signed a law that cuts spending and reduces our deficit by $2 trillion.”

The trouble lies in the accomplishments Obama chose to cite—a boring litany of microgovernance that makes him sound more like President Clinton than like President Obama. Obama’s presidency has been more consequential than that of any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson, but you would never know it from his speech. During his first two years in office he accomplished more than Jimmy Carter achieved in four or Bill Clinton achieved in eight. But these weren’t accomplishments that made him seem like a moderate conservative or a New Democrat. They made him seem like a muscular liberal.

The two accomplishments, in case you’ve forgotten, were passage of the health care law and passage of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. It’s notable that in his speech Obama mentioned these accomplishments only to emphasize how inoffensively moderate they were (“a health care law that relies on private insurance, or an approach to Wall Street reform that encourages financial innovation but guards against reckless risk-taking”). He’s practically apologizing for them! In fact, these were two landmark pieces of legislation in areas where Democrats had not previously been able to make a dent in at least a generation. Neither represents more than a necessary first step, but that first step was extremely difficult to achieve. If followed up on, they will change the country’s economic direction--a change that, as Obama notes in the rest of his speech, is badly needed. 

I understand Obama’s skittishness about the health care bill, given the strong possibility that the Supreme Court will soon strike it down. But it’s the wrong strategy. Obama’s message should be: “Hey, I’m trying to actually do something here, and I’m getting somewhere, and that’s why so many conservatives are spitting mad.” Implicit in his message should be: “No matter what the Supreme Court does, we’re going to make this happen. Strike down this or that provision and we’ll come up with another, because we’re all about providing health care coverage to Americans.” Also implicit in his message should be: “This will get easier if I’m given the chance to make more Supreme Court appointments. It will get impossible if I’m not.” 

I don’t understand at all why Obama is downplaying the achievement of Dodd-Frank. Maybe he’s internalized the left’s complaint that the bill didn’t achieve enough. His reply to that criticism should be: “Show me a pathbreaking reform bill aimed at reversing decades of bad policy that didn’t leave too much undone.” Striking out in a new direction is hard work, and your political opponents are always going to fight you on it. The nastier they get, the more you know you’re making progress.

People who vote to re-elect Obama aren’t going to do it because they think he’s a tax-cutter or a government-shrinker (even if, in some ways, he is). They’re going to do it because Obama’s made some powerful gains in his first term, and those gains desperately need to be protected and consolidated. If you don’t believe that, then you might as well vote for Romney.