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Obama’s Angry, Direct, and Eloquent Defense of Government

Barack Obama gave the best speech of his presidency tonight. It was angry, direct, and entirely appropriate to the occasion—an “economic crisis,” which, as he said, has been made worse by a “political crisis.” He spoke to the Congress, but also over their head to their constituents, and appealed to them to put pressure on their representatives. His proposal to help the economy was not perfect—too much consisted of tax cuts and not spending—but for once the scale of the proposal, $450 billion, fit the crisis, and if enacted, would help and not damage the economy. That’s in marked contrast to the spending cuts he has agreed to make this year. 

He eloquently defended government against those who want to dismantle it. Americans, he reminded the audience, are not just “rugged individualists” but “all connected” and “there are some things we can only do together, as a nation.” “Ask yourselves—where would we be right now if the people who sat here before us decided not to build our highways and our bridges, our dams and our airports?” He made the case for government by making the case for collective action rather than for “big government.” That’s an essential distinction.

But, look, fulsome praise is boring. What would a column by me on Obama be without some criticisms? There were definite limits to what he tried to accomplish in the speech. Some important points were left unsaid. And some logical connections were not made that must be made if Obama is to finally persuade Americans of the need for public spending. Here are some of the missing notions and links:

1. Obama spoke of an “economic crisis,” and of the plight of the unemployed, but he didn’t make the one point that lies the center of his own program: that the nature of this crisis is such that if the government doesn’t spend money, the economy will not recover. It won’t recover on its own, but it will continue to shed jobs, as it has. And if the government cuts spending, as Obama and the super committee are preparing to do, during this downturn, it will deepen and prolong it. Obama steered clear of making this point, saying instead that his spending and tax cuts will be fully paid for. (And he mentioned “changes” to Medicare and Medicaid, which he should leave to Paul Ryan.) That’s fundamentally misleading, and opens the door to the Republican budget cutters. 

2. Obama’s case for government as national action—his communitarian approach, if you like—was the strongest moment of his speech, but in terms of justifying his program, it was ambiguous. Yes, what would the United States be without highways and dams, but that’s not the point right now. It’s that in order to put people to work in this downturn, where demand and investment are throttled, you need government spending. As Keynes once argued, it could consist of burying bottles in the ground and digging them up. And spending is far better than tax cuts, which can be saved rather than spent. And spending on public enterprises is probably better for getting jobs soon than funding private concerns.

There is another point on which Obama was somewhat misleading. The crisis we are in is international, not national. The U.S. cannot simply export its way out of it by becoming, as he suggested,  “number one again.” If other nations can’t buy our cars because their economics are sinking, then it won’t matter if Fords are better than Hyundais. The U.S. has to worry about Europe and about Japan, and about getting a new monetary agreement that can begin removing the imbalances between surplus and debtor nations that lie, in part, at the bottom of this crisis. So it’s fine to talk about free trade agreements and being number one and exporting our way out of trouble, but it’s not necessarily the solution.

Before Obama’s speech, commentators were saying that he stood no chance of getting his program through Congress. But when Obama shows leadership—when he plays the class card, as he did, and implicitly paints the opposition as the party of the wealthy and of the big corporations—then they quaver, as they did in the spring of last year during the debate over financial reform. Both House Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor suddenly turned conciliatory after Obama’s speech. Obama might not only get political mileage, but some actual fuel for the economy out of this speech. The question will be, though, whether he will get enough to begin pulling America out of the economic crisis.

John B. Judis is a senior editor of The New Republic and a Visiting Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.