President Obama had two goals for last night's jobs speech before a joint session of Congress: to instill confidence and hope in a shaken, economically ravaged, unemployment-plagued electorate, and to convince House Republicans to put aside their partisan vitriol and immediately pass his "American Jobs Act." On both counts I think he failed.
This was not supposed to look, sound and smell like every other speech. It needed to be a grand slam. The kind of speech that materially moves the needle. The kind of speech that makes Americans watching at home feel that this time things will change. A speech that would need to transcend the political gamesmanship and GOP obstructionism that has crippled Washington. A speech that would be remembered, in a time of dire crisis, like those passionately delivered by the likes of FDR, Truman, Kennedy and Reagan. A speech that would truly inspire and result in action. Again, the speech failed to achieve these goals.
To be sure, the $447-billion jobs bill has elements that analysts say will give some boost to the economy. Anytime employees and employers get tax cuts it will have a stimulative affect. Giving an incentive to employers to hire workers, especially those unemployed over 6 months, is also a good thing. And of course, government spending to put constructions workers, teachers, teens and others to work will have impact. But for the people sitting at home, those who needed to change their perceptions of where the country was/is heading, I suspect it had little or no effect.
The president made a huge strategic error in addressing a joint session of Congress. The speech should've been short and sweet. Fifteen minutes. And delivered from the Oval Office, where Americans would've taken it much more seriously for it's focus and gravity. Instead what we got was the standard pomp and circumstance show, complete with all the smiling, cheering, glad-handing, back-slapping and odd merriment that typically accompanies these bi-partisan charades. The inappropriately festive setting utterly contradicted what was supposed to be the dire message and tone, and set the event off on the wrong foot. I sat at home like millions of others I'm sure and said, "Arrgghh...a bunch of shifty politicians patting themselves on the back again while the rest of us suffer."
But since he did speak before Congress, he blew major opportunities to call out Republicans for their clear and obvious lack of support for what he was presenting. He should've said, "Look what happens when I say the government should spend money to help you, to help put people to work, to help re-build America's infrastructure, to put more teachers in schools, and get kids off the street and working... just look what happens when I say all this. Half the room, the Republican side, sits stone faced with arms folded sternly while Democrats are cheering. Remember that, America. Remember next November who is trying to help you and who is not. I challenge you here tonight Speaker Boehner, Rep. Cantor, Senate Minority Leader McConnell to pass this bill and stop playing games with people's lives, money and with America's financial health. People will remember next November whether you rose above your partisan rancor and passed this bill or whether you simply didn't care about them. America will be watching what you do after tonight."
As for the House Republicans, mere lip service was paid after the speech by Boehner: "The proposals the president outlined tonight merit consideration. We hope he gives serious consideration to our ideas as well." Translation: "That's what I have to say to not look like a complete obstructionist jackass. But, just like with the debt reduction debate, whatever ultimately passes my House, if anything, will look nothing like what Obama presented tonight. And it will be more of what we want... which is to not spend more of our rich constituents' money or tax them further."
In the speech Obama challenged Republicans to rise above their rigid ideology and simply do what's best for America: "The question is whether, in the face of an ongoing national crisis, we can stop the political circus and actually do something to help the economy." Guess what my money's on?
He continued: "There should be nothing controversial about this piece of legislation. Everything in here is the kind of proposal that's been supported by Democrats and Republicans." What this shows is that he still doesn't get it. He still believes that somehow Boehner, Cantor & Company are gonna say, "Ya know... he's right. Just as in years past, we really don't have any opposition to these measures... so let's go with them and help him help the unemployed." Fat chance. With fourteen months before the election, the GOP's singular focus and goal is to oust Obama. He could find the cure for cancer right now and they will reject it on the grounds that it will put undertakers and hospice workers out of work.
Judging from the overall reaction Thursday night in that glaringly divided House Chamber, this bill has a microscopic chance of getting passed...especially as presented and desired by Obama. And if we ask folks on the street today about the speech I'm sure they will say "What speech?" And if they actually did watch it, they'll probably sum it up with, "eh..." Over the next several days, I'm sure the national polls will show just that.
Follow Andy Ostroy on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AndyOstroy