Whenever President Barack Obama gets into a political bind, he extricates himself with a speech. If that pattern continues, we can expect some amazing oratory in Obama’s first State of the Union address. Never in his meteoric public life has Obama been in such a mess. His signature proposal for health care reform is on life support. His Democratic Party is reeling from the loss of Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts Senate seat to an upstart Republican in a pickup truck. The Supreme Court has derailed any hope he might have retained for reducing the power of lobbyists by striking down bans on independent corporate campaign spending. And the unemployment rate is close to 11 percent overall, and at more than 15 percent among African Americans.
So is there any way in the world for the president to talk himself out of this quagmire? Should he maintain the angry populist tone of his denunciation of financial fat cats who have ticked off the public with their big bonuses and high-handed refusal to start lending again? Or should he adopt a more thoughtful tone, conceding that he made some mistakes and promising to recalibrate and do better?
Beats the hell out of me. He’s the great orator. But I do know that I want to hear, more than anything else, that he’s going back to what should be the basics for a Democrat: jobs, jobs, jobs. And after he has made that clear, I want to hear it again: jobs, jobs, jobs. If he talks for an hour, I want at least 45 minutes to be devoted to that topic. Nothing, absolutely nothing—not health care reform, or fighting global warming or the war in Afghanistan—matters as much as putting people back to work.
That’s not just good policy; it’s good politics, too. If the unemployment rate were, say, 8 percent and falling, instead of headed toward 11 percent, Obama would have a lot more political capital to spend on other priorities. He would seem more connected to the plight of ordinary people who are suffering terribly instead of appearing to be obsessed with implementing a health care policy understood by nobody except a handful of policy wonks. And he would be in a far better position to persuade jittery Democrats who are up for reelection this year to stay the course.
As for the tone, I hope BHO will channel FDR and JFK, not his inner conciliator. The truth is that, apart from “yes, we can,” Obama has uttered very few lines that anyone can recite from memory. I want to hear something as pithy and memorable as, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” and, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” I want something that can catch in the mind, to persist and inspire, not a tedious laundry list of proposals. I want to hear something for the ages, not just the political need of the day. And I want it to be about jobs.
Jack White is a regular contributor to The Root.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.