Fifty years ago, Etta James recorded a song that became her signature, "At Last." And last week, President Barack Obama outlined for a joint session of Congress the American Jobs Act, which appears to be a realistic government response to the persistent 9%+ unemployment rate. At last. After months of public discussion about any other topic anyone could think of -- including the Tea Party's holding-your-breath-contest over the national debt ceiling -- the President had the opportunity to address what almost everyone in America wants to hear about: jobs. At last.
The President's plan is a mixture of tax cuts and spending; large and small steps; large steps that should satisfy the Democrats and smaller steps that should mollify somewhat the Republican side. The details won't arrive on the Hill until Monday , but we're told it totals $447 billion; 55% of it tax cuts, including continuation of the employee payroll tax cut and giving employers a break on their end of the payroll tax.
The speech environment was perhaps unique in our history. A few of the more outrageous members of the opposition dismissed a speech to a joint session of Congress before they heard a word, and a couple of them even indicated they just flat weren't interested. Sadly, in the last three years, this has become the norm. There has not been such a sustained, organized lack of respect and basic courtesy for the President of the United States in modern history, no matter which party; no matter the circumstances. At least none of the distinguished Members of Congress yelled, "You lie!" at the President this time.
The speech was one of his best, in content, delivery and use of persuasive rhetorical elements. He challenged Congress with some version of the phrase, "You need to pass this legislation right away," 17 times in 32 minutes. Clearly, he intended to focus the heat of public sentiment on Congress to end the food fight and get to work, like a magnifying glass focuses sunlight on an object.
Occasionally, his delivery was sharp; almost parental, as were his references to a number of policy steps that Republicans had agreed to in the past, but seemed willing to oppose now simply because he favored them. "There should be nothing controversial about this piece of legislation. Everything in here is the kind of proposal that's been supported by both Democrats and Republicans -- including many who sit here tonight."
Coming the night after the Republican Presidential debate at the Saint Reagan Presidential Library, Obama took a whack at emerging Republican economic orthodoxy, which was the dominant theme of the debate. He characterized a single-minded focus on cutting tax revenues and government services to the bone and doing away with all regulations so businesses can do whatever they decide as a "Race to the Bottom," and chided, "That's not who we are."
And he reproached the GOP for their evident strategy of blocking anything that might improve the U.S. economy or reduce unemployment before the 2012 election. "The next election is 14 months away. And the people who sent us here--the people who hired us to work for them -- they don't have the luxury of waiting 14 months. Some of them are living week to week, paycheck to paycheck, even day to day. They need help and they need it now."
The effectiveness of President Obama's speech -- in tone, timing and content -- was evident in the official reaction from Republicans. None. They sat largely stone-faced through the address, offered no televised response, and were actually less than bellicose and dismissive in most of their comments afterward. About the sharpest barb any of the loyal opposition could fashion was, "It was a political speech." Naaaahhh.
Obviously, the President is a superb speaker. He and the coauthors of last week's speech took precisely the right tone and delivered exactly the right message. As Etta James sang, "I found a dream that I could speak to; a dream that I can call my own. At last."