You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Obama Soars, But Can He Fix The Economy?

Walter Shapiro, who has covered the last eight presidential campaigns, continues his analysis of President Obama's major speeches for The New Republic:

After his well-crafted but less-than-enduring Inaugural Address and the logorrhea of his prime-time press conference, Barack Obama finally hit his long-awaited rhetorical moment with his maiden address to the Congress. This was a speech that was not defined by partisan applause lines (though there were more than 50 outbreaks of hand-clapping) nor did it have much to do with the Congress itself (despite an artful tribute to Ted Kennedy). This was, instead, Obama's moment to explain to the American people the hard truth that anti-banker populism (no matter how tempting) is as destructive for the economy as enough-already conservative inaction. As Obama forcefully argued, "In a time of crisis, we cannot afford to govern out of anger, or yield to the politics of the moment." Forget presidential approval ratings or the post-speech press releases from camera-hungry legislators: What truly mattered were the president's efforts to explain his plans to voters unsophisticated in the nuances of economic policy. This was Obama's best shot to inoculate himself against the simplistic worldviews of Joe the Plumber and Rick the CNBC Reporter.

In defiance of short-term green-eyeshade accounting, Obama found a variety of ways to underscore his central theme of the evening: "While the cost of action will be great, I can assure you that the cost of inaction will be greater." The new president, who wins the approval of roughly two-thirds of Americans, was willing to risk some of his political capital to justify repeated efforts to rescue the banks and Wall Street. Obama never spoke--or even alluded--to the central policy issue of whether temporary nationalization is in the crystal ball for Citibank and Bank of America. Instead, the president acknowledged "how unpopular it is to be seen as helping the banks right now, especially when everyone is suffering in part from their bad decisions." Yet, as Obama made clear, the federal government will keep bailing them out because there is no prudent alternative.

The most difficult challenge facing Obama--and one that always bedevils liberal presidents amidst a tidal wave of red ink--is how to justify the ambitious spending programs promised during the innocent days of the campaign. At least when it came to clean energy, Obama could invoke the dread specter of falling behind our foreign adversaries: "It is China that has launched the largest effort in history to make their economy energy sufficient."  But try as he might, it did not seem like Obama found a way to convince skeptics of the need for far-reaching health-care reform at this parlous economic juncture. Instead, like virtually every president since Richard Nixon, Obama raised the hope of "seeking a cure for cancer in our time."

In the early days of the Reagan administration, budget-cutting czar David Stockman believed that the American voters would recoil in horror when the national debt hit the $1-trillion mark; now the deficit for Fiscal Year 2009 alone will exceed that figure. Inheriting this financial disaster, the best that Obama could promise was to cut that deficit figure in half by the end of his first term. Yes, the president deserves major credit for abandoning the Bush administration's deceptive we-fight-our-wars-off-budget accounting tricks. But it will take far more than wiping out that perennial "waste, fraud, and abuse" and once again embracing the poll-tested cause of "ending the tax breaks for corporations that ship our jobs overseas" to make the budget arithmetic add up.

So even if he did not change the tenor of the economic debate, the 44th president reminded us of the oratorical gifts and intellectual rigor that vaulted him to the White House.

--Walter Shapiro