Way back in the Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton argued that Barack Obama hadn’t the mettle to connect his inspiring rhetoric with actual reform, that soaring speeches are poor weapons for the Beltway battle zone. Her skeptical, tough-lady political persona was anachronistic in those pregnant times. But listening to Obama’s latest Big Speech Tuesday, on jobs, I wondered how Clinton’s critique would fare today.
With double-digit unemployment, burgeoning food stamp enrollment and bailed out banks preparing to pay record bonuses, Obama’s hopeful future feels an awful lot like the dreaded past for millions of Americans. Not least for black Americans. As the newly combative Congressional Black Caucus noted after the president’s jobs speech Tuesday, a whopping 28 percent of African Americans are now getting food aid and more than 15 percent are out of work. Those families won’t likely take heart in Obama’s insistence that, due to his economic agenda, “we're in a very different place today than we were a year ago.”
After weeks of flak from his own party, Obama has finally put jobs on his rhetorical radar. He outlined Tuesday his broad ideas for getting America’s 15 million unemployed back to work. He wants to spend an unspecified amount—in the billions, to be sure—to launch new infrastructure projects; to spur green jobs through incentives for weatherizing homes; to give tax breaks to small businesses and to extend benefits like unemployment insurance and COBRA. Most controversially, he’s embraced the idea of using the “savings” from left over bailout money to create jobs—a plan that unions and progressive economists have been pushing for a while. The speech was well-received.
But Obama’s never been short on bold pronouncements. His problem has been turning them into equally bold policy. As he reminded us Tuesday, somewhat defensively, his administration has prodded Washington into several long-avoided conversations. Health care reform is Exhibit 1. What the president doesn’t seem to grasp is that talking about old, intransigent problems isn’t the same as fixing them.
If our bitter, year-long debate on health care produces a system that gets only a few new folks covered and brings down costs only marginally, is it reform? With foreclosures still churning at hundreds of thousands a month, can Obama really claim, as he did Tuesday, that he “enacted measures to stem the tide of foreclosures”? If large banks that survived only through the public’s welfare are demonstrably still not lending, is his assertion that “we acted to get lending flowing again” legitimate?
In each of these cases, Obama launched a reform campaign with a big, cogent speech—and then shrank from the fight he’d picked when, to borrow from his words Tuesday, “the forces of status quo marshal their resources.” Those forces—obstructionist Republicans, industry lobbyists and the conservative Democrats they support—will surely challenge Obama’s jobs ideas, too. But this is one battle he cannot afford to lose.
The gap between rhetoric and reform in Obama’s presidency has not yet meaningfully hurt him politically. His approval ratings have consistently dropped in Gallup’s polling, and recently dipped below 50 percent for the first time. But he remains personally popular. That will end abruptly if he does not deliver on jobs. Americans will tolerate a great deal from their elected officials, but not double-digit unemployment.
Republicans have already started to invoke the deficit boogeyman to tamp down big federal spending for jobs initiatives. The White House has responded by trying to sound more concerned about the deficit than anybody else. Obama made his fiscal prudence a centerpiece of his speech Tuesday and stressed that America’s red balance sheet is George W. Bush’s enduring legacy. “Budget busting tax cuts and spending programs were approved by many of the same people who are now waxing political about fiscal responsibility,” the president scoffed. “It's a sight to see.”
He’ll see a good bit worse when the fight really gets moving over the various jobs-stimulus ideas now circulating. And he’ll be wise to channel his inner Hillary when it happens. The trip from political hero to political bum is a short one, and it travels through folks’ pocketbooks. If Obama’s been saving up all that political capital he earned last November for some distant fight, this is surely the one.
Kai Wright is The Root’s senior writer. Follow him on Twitter.