The president gave a terrific speech. But if great speeches could heal our economic wounds, if they could repair the ever-increasing gap between the rich and the rest of us, if they could reopen the closing doors of opportunity for the young, the African-American, the Hispanic and the graying members of our workforce, we'd be living in a different country today.
We must never forget that in a democracy it's the people, not their elected officials, who lead. This speech leaves progressive Americans, and that great American majority that agrees with them on economic issues, with a choice:
Will we be pacified with rhetoric, or will we demand -- and take -- action? Will we lead?
The speech included stirring, if vague, statements about economic fairness. "Our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it," said the president. "We believe that America's prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class."
That's certainly true, for all the reasons laid out by economist Joseph Stiglitz his New York Times op-ed of last week. But the president offered no specifics about the growing wealth inequality that has allowed the wealthiest to take more and more of the national income. That inequality is truly stunning, and (as polls have shown) is far worse than the American people realize.
This was an opportunity to teach the American people. It was an opportunity to make the case for government job creation, to talk about the need for good jobs at good wages.
It was not taken.
The president also said: "We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship."
The Sounds of Silence
The speech's real strengths extended to what it left out. There was no mention, direct or indirect, of the hard-right agenda known as "Simpson Bowles" -- or, for that matter, of deficit reduction in general. There was no suggestion that Social Security contributes to the government deficit (it doesn't). There were no amplifications of right-wing rhetoric about downsizing government.
But not all of the omissions were wise. There was also nothing specific about creating jobs for a nation desperately in need of them. There were no cold facts and figures about the millions of Americans who don't have a job, of the millions working below their skill level or stuck with part-time employment when they need to work full-time.
Every American family that can't make ends meet is a tragedy. A very specific tragedy.
Connect the Dots
You could find the outline of a just economic program in the president's speech by playing connect-the-dots:
"A modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce... " That sounds like a program to rebuild our infrastructure. That would require several hundred billion dollars in government investment, but it would be repaid several times over with economic growth and would create a wave of well-paying jobs in construction and beyond.
But he didn't say that.
"A modern economy requires... schools and colleges to train our workers." That sounds like a program to create a new cadre of primary and secondary school teachers, a new commitment to higher education, perhaps even a program to make college affordable again.
But he didn't say that.
"A free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play." That almost sounds like he's saying we need to do more to rein in the job-killing lawlessness and cheating on Wall Street and among our largest corporations.
But he didn't say that.
The Empire Strikes Back
We shouldn't have to connect the dots. A presidential speech shouldn't be a Rorschach test onto which each listener projects his own desires. This one's vagueness gives the forces of corporate self-interest an opportunity to connect the dots their way for the president and his team, to whom they have great access, using the self-serving mythologies of the past as a stencil:
We can "create jobs" through deregulation, Mr. President. We can create those well-paying jobs if you'll just lower our taxes.
We can be sure that the lobbyists, CEOs, titans, tycoons and campaign contributors are already hard at work doing just that. Time and time again their influence has prevailed upon this president, just as it did upon his Democratic predecessor Bill Clinton, with disastrous economic consequences for the rest of us.
Stars in Our Eyes
It's time for citizens to fight those forces without discouragement or distraction -- and without being mollified by speeches.
This president's first term was marred by a shocking refusal to hold Wall Street criminals legally accountable for fraud, or even for laundering drug money for killer cartels. Those same Wall Street criminals destroyed millions of jobs and trillions in middle-class wealth, yet presume to lecture the president and the nation on the need for Social Security and Medicare cuts to fix the economy.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the first Obama Administration, and its core error, was the president's decision to lean on former President Bill Clinton and his team. Clinton's a very popular figure personally, but his economic team were the GOP's co-conspirators and co-architects in the design of our current economic misery.
This week the president proved again that he is a star, every bit Clinton's media equal. But neither he nor Clinton have reliably acted in the nation's best interests without pressure from a truly independent, galvanized progressive movement. That means it's our turn. We must take action in the face of economic injustice: writing to our leaders, supporting activist groups and taking to the streets when necessary. But we won't do that if we're blinded by the stars in our eyes.
The president has issued a declaration of values. It's to insist that those values be honored with action -- his, and ours.