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What the President Did Not Do in His Jobs Speech

As expected President Obama’s speech before Congress last week laid out a moderate agenda for job creation through Keynesian-style stimulus and targeted tax cuts.

Certainly there is much to be lauded in the speech, so let’s start by addressing what he did do. The opening portion compellingly described an America where the social compact that said “you can succeed if only you work hard” has eroded. He went on to add that America’s deteriorating infrastructure (which receives an overall grade of “D” from the American Civil Society of Engineers), and crumbling schools are hampering our competitiveness. He did talk about investments we need to make and protections we need to keep. He did talk about priorities.

But the president missed an opportunity to elevate the narrative. He failed to decisively, crisply, and compellingly spell out an answer to his own question: “what’s the best way to grow the economy and create jobs?” The president could have used the question to pivot to a principled discussion of the progressive vision of economic prosperity. He could have drawn a stark contrast between his progressive values and the importance of “building up” the middle class through education and innovation and the obsolete thinking that wealth and prosperity somehow “trickle down.”

Instead he answered his pivotal question with a series of other questions before veering off to talk about competitiveness. Without a doubt, competitiveness is important, the contributors and readers of this blog are well aware. And my colleagues and I at CAP and at Science Progress have advocated about the public investments we need to put America back on the global cutting edge. But in resorting to a breif appeal to our patriotic sense of competition, and then following that up by reading off a series of recent bullet points off his own presidential resume, he missed the opportunity to add perhaps the most significant bullet point yet—articulating once and for all a single, concise, coherent and progressive message for economic growth to replace the fading light of Reaganomics.

He grazed the subject with his description of a “thread running throughout our history–a belief that we are all connected; and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation.” But he did not engage. Indeed, the laundry list of challenges and proposals that his speech contained at times seemed separate from, even irrelevant to the American values contained in his few moments philosophizing. The president himself said “I don’t pretend that this plan will solve all our problems.  It shouldn’t be… the last plan of action we propose,” as if to acknowledge that the short-term band-aids he proposed were mismatched with the larger structural deterioration of the social compact he earlier bemoaned.

In the end, it seemed that the point he wanted to make was “Republicans just want to shrink government and cut taxes, but I want to do twenty-seven hundred things that are all related somehow,” but he just couldn’t quite tell us how. He asked “what’s the best way to create jobs and grow the economy?” and answered with a prudent list of proposals that will please Paul Krugman and will likely make at least a small dent in the nation’s persistent unemployment. But he failed to articulate a vision for the future. More importantly, he failed ot give us a clear, concise, one-sentence answer that pundits, policy wonks, and the public alike could grab hold of, understand, and repeat, repeat, repeat.

What exactly that sentence is I do not know. But it might go something like this. “The best way to create jobs and grow the economy is to invest in innovation. And here’s how we do that…” Then the narrative he could have injected into the weekly news cycle might have been “Obama traces bold path for job creation through investing in homegrown innovation.” Instead what we’ve heard for the past week sounded more like “Obama claims recycling a grab bag of semi-effective stimulus policies is the best way to create jobs. Meanwhile, Republican GOP contenders want to do somthing completely different.”

Maybe I’m a perfectionist. Maybe this wasn’t the moment to lay out in stark contrast the progressive vision for economic growth. Maybe this was a moment for pragmatic, short-term solutions. But if not now, when?

Sean Pool is the Assistant Editor for Science Progress at the Center for American Progress.


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