It is a good thing that the president’s address to Congress tonight is not billed as a State of the Union. We all know the sorry state of the union right now, and no one really wants to spend an hour gawking at it in prime time. For Barack Obama, tonight is about successfully communicating the scale of the problems and sending a clear message that he is engaged in solving them.
There are those who say that confidence in Obama is the only thing we have going for us, but that does not mean we should get just another inspirational speech. He needs to be very specific about how the mountain of taxpayer money that he has recently pumped into the economy will jolt it out of its vegetative state and get it moving again. He needs to correct the impression left last week by his treasury secretary that they don't know what they were doing.
Obama's 68 percent approval rating in one recent poll serves as proof that Americans know that he inherited an economy on life support and are willing to give him a little time to restore it to health. But he can only play the bereft heir for so long. Real details are needed at this point in the game to keep Americans’ trust and our confidence in him high.
Jack Kennedy was in a similar situation when he delivered an address to Congress 10 days after his inauguration in 1961, and he did not hesitate to toss some of the blame back to the last administration for the tough economic times he encountered.
“Economic prophecy is at best an uncertain art—as demonstrated by the prediction one year ago from this same podium that 1960 would be, and I quote, ‘the most prosperous year in our history,’" Kennedy told his audience. In January 1960, the national unemployment rate was 5.2 percent. By the spring of 1961, it was 7.1 percent.
Similarly, in January 2008, the national unemployment rate was 4.8 percent, and by January 2009 it had jumped to 7.6 percent.
Last year President Bush declared: “In the long run, Americans can be confident about our economic growth. But in the short run, we can all see that that growth is slowing.”
In response to that “slowdown,” Bush was proposing his own stimulus package, which involved $600 rebate checks to individual taxpayers and $1,200 per household, and he threatened Congress not to load it up with pork. “That would delay it or derail it, and neither option is acceptable,” Bush said. “This is a good agreement that will keep our economy growing and our people working, and this Congress must pass it as soon as possible.”
Congress did pass it, with 81 votes in the Senate and 380 in the House. (Obama, the bipartisan president, could only dream of such numbers.) But after Bush’s comments, the economy did not keep growing, and people did not keep working. In fact, 3.8 million people stopped working.
Obama should avoid such dicey predictions; of particular concern is his talk about a 50 percent cut in the deficit by 2012. There is no minimizing the drag that huge federal deficits have on the economy, but in light of the kind of money we've been spending lately, the idea that half of a $1.3 trillion deficit could be erased in four years seems like an incongruous component in a conversation about harsh realities and tough choices. In its broad outlines, the Obama deficit reduction plan is based on an end to the Iraq war and higher taxes on rich people, of which there are considerably fewer than there used to be. It is time to move from broad outlines to specifics of the fix and resist the urge to tell us what we want to hear.
Former President Bill Clinton thinks Obama has been too glum in his delivery and demeanor lately. Easy for him to say. At his last State of the Union in 2000, Clinton was able to declare: “We begin the new century with over 20 million new jobs; the fastest economic growth in more than 30 years; the lowest unemployment rates in 30 years…”
What does Obama have to be so damn cheerful about?
Appearing less glum is not going to get Obama out of the woods on this one. If he is seeking advice from past presidents, he should look to Kennedy, not Clinton. In his 1961 address, Kennedy told Congress plainly:
“To state the facts frankly is not to despair the future nor indict the past.”
Indeed. Obama just needs to give it to us straight. We can deal.
Terence Samuel is deputy editor of The Root.