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State of the Union: Jobs Rumored to Make a Guest Appearance... Again

02/11/2013 11:47 am ET | Updated Apr 13, 2013

The big news about President Obama's fifth State of the Union speech tomorrow night is that it's going to focus on "job creation" and "economic growth." Or, as the New York Times put it, Obama will "define a second-term agenda built around restoring economic prosperity to the middle class" and will "vow to use the power of his office to recapture robust job growth and economic expansion." This theme was previewed in a speech the president gave last week in which he told House Democrats that he will talk about "making sure that we're focused on job creation here in the United States."

But what's really newsworthy is less that Obama is going to focus on jobs in his State of the Union speech, or that the White House is telegraphing the same, but that, with nearly 8 percent unemployment and the economy contracting in the last quarter of 2012, it's actually a news story that the president is going to focus on jobs and the economy. That this is news is a symptom of how far both Washington's responsiveness to the economy and our expectations have fallen.

It's now more than three months past the election. That we need "job creation here in the United States" is not exactly a novel idea. And yet much of the president's focus from November to February has been on how to craft a version of economic austerity that is less destructive than the wildly destructive one advanced by the Republicans. Certainly less destructive is better than more destructive -- but neither will result in job creation. I guess that's why it's news that the president is going to, as they say in Washington, "pivot" to job creation.

But it's what comes after the speech that's important. Or, I should say, between this speech and the next one, since jobs and the economy have made regular appearances in Obama's four previous State of the Union speeches, as well. Here are just a few highlights:

"I know that for many Americans watching right now, the state of our economy is a concern that rises above all others."

"You don't need to hear another list of statistics to know that our economy is in crisis, because you live it every day."

"Now is the time to act boldly and wisely -- to not only revive this economy, but to build a new foundation for lasting prosperity."

"It's an agenda that begins with jobs."

"This recession has also compounded the burdens that America's families have been dealing with for decades."

"...tonight I'd like to talk about how together we can deliver on that promise. It begins with our economy."

"And after two years of recession, the economy is growing again. Retirement funds have started to gain back some of their value. Businesses are beginning to invest again, and slowly some are starting to hire again."

"...jobs must be our number-one focus in 2010, and that's why I'm calling for a new jobs bill tonight..."

"People are out of work. They're hurting. They need our help. And I want a jobs bill on my desk without delay."

"The only way to move to full employment is to lay a new foundation for long-term economic growth, and finally address the problems that America's families have confronted for years."

"We can't afford another so-called economic 'expansion' like the one from the last decade -- what some call the 'lost decade' -- where jobs grew more slowly than during any prior expansion; where the income of the average American household declined while the cost of health care and tuition reached record highs; where prosperity was built on a housing bubble and financial speculation."

"Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again."

"But we have never measured progress by these yardsticks alone. We measure progress by the success of our people. By the jobs they can find and the quality of life those jobs offer."

"These steps we've taken over the last two years may have broken the back of this recession, but to win the future, we'll need to take on challenges that have been decades in the making."

"Remember -- for all the hits we've taken these last few years, for all the naysayers predicting our decline, America still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world."

"We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules."

"In the six months before I took office, we lost nearly 4 million jobs. And we lost another 4 million before our policies were in full effect."

"Those are the facts. But so are these: In the last 22 months, businesses have created more than 3 million jobs."

"No, we will not go back to an economy weakened by outsourcing, bad debt, and phony financial profits. Tonight, I want to speak about how we move forward, and lay out a blueprint for an economy that's built to last..."

And here are the number of SOTU mentions of the word "jobs":

2009: 14
2010: 23
2011: 25
2012: 33

So talk about jobs has increased each year. But significant action hasn't followed. And yet each year it's somehow news that the president will talk about jobs or unveil some new rhetorical angle on the economy (one "built to last," one that will "win the future," one that shows how we "do big things"). Maybe the reason it's news each year is actually because there's so little action taken in between the speeches. Washington forgets about jobs all year long -- until suddenly, there it is, in late January or early February or just before elections. Oh, it's you again. It's become a rhetorical version of the guest brought to sit next to the first lady at each State of the Union. "Sitting to the left of my beautiful wife is the heroic firefighter who saved 37 children. And sitting on her right: our Concern for Jobs and the Middle Class." Right on cue, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle stand and applaud -- Concern for Jobs and the Middle Class has a big bipartisan following. And that's the last we see of it for another year. "Here's your plane -- I mean, bus -- ticket back home. And be sure to keep late January of next year open on your schedule!"

It's an example of Obama's -- and our -- magical thinking about big ceremonial speeches. Yes, they can be important in setting an agenda and letting the country know what the White House's priorities are. But only if that's really the agenda and those are really the priorities. More often, the annual SOTU becomes a not very meaningful night of kabuki theater (who says Washington doesn't have a vibrant arts scene?).

On Sunday I appeared as a panelist on CNN's Fareed Zakaria GPS. Though I agree with my fellow panelist Paul Krugman on matters of growth and austerity, we had different views on the matter of presidential focus. "I always hear this about focus," said Paul. "But what is it you want him to do? What he should be doing is passing legislation, right? But no legislation can pass. If he proposed anything that made any sense at all, it would get nowhere in the House."

I have no illusions about what the inclinations of John Boehner and Eric Cantor and Mitch McConnell are. But that's no reason to abdicate leadership on the biggest crisis facing the country.

And yes, I have no doubt that the president is concerned about jobs and would rather have more of them than fewer of them. But there are different levels of presidential focus. For instance, think back to the Bush White House and the run-up to the war in Iraq. That's certainly one example of what a focused White House looks like. They were single-mindedly focused on dragging the country into an unprecedented -- and disastrous -- preemptive war. It was a big project, and, with relentless focus, they pulled it off. That was one issue on which a White House could not be accused of not backing up its rhetoric with action.

Cut to 2013 and, unlike Iraqi WMDs, we're facing a threat -- long-term joblessness and middle class decline -- that actually does exist. In fact, it's been doing serious damage for years now. But if there's anybody in the White House who wants to do battle with unemployment as badly as George Bush and Dick Cheney (and a few dozen others) wanted to do battle with Iraq, I hope they'll get their war on in the second term.

So while I sincerely welcome a focus in tomorrow night's speech on jobs and growth, I just as sincerely hope that it's followed by clear and sustained action.