It’s hard to build up hype over a Presidential address, but the White House gave it their best shot, spending three days prepping the press corps for a major speech on the economy. But if watchers were expecting a revolutionary change of policy from President Obama on Wednesday, they were probably disappointed. The speech he delivered at Knox University in Galesburg, Ill., was classic Obama boilerplate. In fact, as some reporters noted, it was almost identical to a speech that he gave at Galesburg in 2005 and another one that he made in 2011. That isn’t to say, however, that the most recent Galesburg address didn’t have surprises: For people listening carefully, it suggested a change of tactics, if not a change of policy.
The five initiatives that Obama outlined are not especially ambitious: He wants to encourage manufacturers to create jobs, help states to develop high-quality preschools, pass laws to make it easier to renegotiate mortgages, shore up Social Security, and continue to work on affordable health care. Health care aside, most of these goals enjoy broad (if vague) support from voters in both parties, and even health care reform is the law of the land, and has growing support.
But just because Obama’s goals are somewhat uncontroversial doesn’t mean that they are achievable. As he has lamented for the past few years, it is all but impossible for him to get anything through Congress. Whether the issue at hand is the Senate’s refusal to approve his political appointees or the House’s refusal to pass vital agricultural and student loan legislation, Obama’s opponents have charted a clear course of postponement and obstruction — as House Majority Leader John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have explicitly admitted.
Under the circumstances, there is little Obama can do: As Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum recently pointed out, all of the goals outlined in his Galesburg speech would require Congressional support to achieve. Given that Obama’s hands are tied, it is worth asking why he would want to draw attention to his legislative impotence. Put another way, why would a president deliberately set himself up to fail?
One answer could be that Obama is drawing attention to congressional Republicans’ refusal to compromise — and the impact that legislative obstruction is having on the lives of average voters. The five goals that he outlined all touch on aspects of middle class life: work, education, home ownership, retirement, and health care. All five are things that millions of American families are struggling with, and all five are things that he has attempted to address, only to have his initiatives stymied by his political opponents.
This is another place where the normality of Obama’s goals may work in his favor. Since these initiatives are so well-worn, so oft-repeated, it’s not hard to imagine a voter watching the speech and wondering why the economy is plagued by the exact same problems that Obama was talking about in 2011 — not to mention 2005.
Ultimately, the president’s powers are deeply constrained by Congress and the Supreme Court; his greatest independent power, in fact, is probably his command of the bully pulpit. As Obama demonstrated on Wednesday, the president can propose legislation, and has the stature needed to draw national attention to pressing problems. While he can’t force Congress to allocate money to create preschools or streamline mortgage refinancing, he can clarify these issues for voters — and ask congressional Republicans why they are refusing to act to reduce middle class suffering.
Will Obama’s strategy work? Given that Congress is facing its highest disapproval rating in history, the president’s attempt to draw attention to its ineffectiveness and gridlock seems logical. What remains to be seen, however, is if Congress will respond with compromise — or if it’s willing to continue cutting off its nose to spite Obama’s face.