07/24/2013 05:55 pm ET Updated Sep 23, 2013

The President's Economics Speech, First Impressions

I thought the president gave a resonant and powerful speech today, as he often does when he's covering this material on the road. The analysis flowed insightfully from diagnosis to prescription, with a correct and strong emphasis on how the economy and policy has changed over recent decades in ways that exacerbate the disconnect between middle-class prosperity and the economy's growth.

The policy agenda emphasized clean energy, infrastructure, manufacturing jobs, education (pre-K and community college), college affordability, affordable health care, help with refis, savings incentives for retirement, and help for vulnerable cities/neighborhoods. It notably did not dwell on debt, deficits, and austerity (see Greg Sargent on that last point).

I'll have more to say about the fine points later. But what I found most interesting in the speech was this: there's little in here the president didn't touch on back in 2005, the last time he spoke about the economy and the middle-class disconnect at Knox College. Neither his diagnosis nor his prescriptions have changed, nor should they -- they were, and are, largely accurate.

What's different is that in 2005 he was saying "here's what a president should do," in 2013 he's saying "here's what I'd be doing if we had a functional political system." He still sees a clear role for government in the economy but he now sees something else that he could not have foreseen eight years ago: the political barriers to implementing that vision.

And he still doesn't know what to do about that dichotomy -- a compelling economic vision on the one hand; a uniquely hostile Congress on the other -- beyond making his case to the people as he did today, taking executive actions, and exhorting private sector actors (CEOs, college presidents; he clearly has some executive orders loaded; I'm hoping one involves improving the job quality of workers on government contracts).

But I'm sure anyone in this town could write the Republicans' press release rebutting the speech -- "nothing on the Keystone pipeline, cutting corporate taxes, or repealing Obamacare!"

The arrival of Barack Obama on the national stage, offering the type of economic analysis we heard today, was a source of great hope for those like myself back in 2005. He still makes a ton of sense to me and I've been around long enough not to give up hope. Pendulums swing in this town, often quickly.

But at least this progressive economist, one who worked for his administration in the early years, hears him with a very different, and sadder, set of ears today than back then.

This post originally appeared at Jared Bernstein's On The Economy blog.