President Obama sent a letter to House Speaker Boehner and Senate Leader Reid requesting a joint session of Congress to listen to his address on the economy and the jobs crisis:
Dear Mr. Speaker: (Dear Mr. Leader:)
Our Nation faces unprecedented economic challenges, and millions of hardworking Americans continue to look for jobs. As I have traveled across our country this summer and spoken with our fellow Americans, I have heard a consistent message: Washington needs to put aside politics and start making decisions based on what is best for our country and not what is best for each of our parties in order to grow the economy and create jobs. We must answer this call.
Therefore, I respectfully request the opportunity to address a Joint Session of Congress on September 7, 2011, at 8:00 p.m. It is my intention to lay out a series of bipartisan proposals that the Congress can take immediately to continue to rebuild the American economy by strengthening small businesses, helping Americans get back to work, and putting more money in the paychecks of the Middle Class and working Americans, while still reducing our deficit and getting our fiscal house in order. It is our responsibility to find bipartisan solutions to help grow our economy, and if we are willing to put country before party, I am confident we can do just that. [Emphasis added]
Ezra Klein rightly notes "the basic political reality of the day: in order to pass, legislation requires bipartisan support." That is certainly true at this time. However, he wrongly concludes that "[i]n order to get bipartisan support, legislation requires compromise." Legislation also gets passed when one side gives in to the other.
In the end, that is really what politics is—one side winning the political and policy debate. Democrats and Republicans simply do not agree on policy and objectives. And they are not likely to agree on policy and objectives any time soon. That's what elections are for.
The other error in Ezra's calculations is the view that passing legislation is the goal. Addressing and solving problems is the goal.
The president will speak to the Congress and the Nation on the problems that are paramount at this time—the weak economy and lack of jobs. In his letter, President Obama promised to propose "bipartisan solutions." I don't have a problem with the president's use of this language—it seems shrewd politically to define your views as "the middle." I would have a problem if in fact all the president does is propose "bipartisan solutions." The reason for this is there are no "bipartisan solutions" to our economic and job woes. Republican proposals will not work. Indeed, Republican policies have been incredibly damaging to the economy and to the jobs situation.
Happily, it seems the president realizes there are no "bipartisan solutions." The New York Times reports that "[President Obama] has concluded, Democrats say, that Republicans will oppose anything he proposes, and with an election looming, Mr. Obama must make clear what he stands for." Indeed.
So does the speech matter? Ezra Klein writes that "I’m not a believer in the power of presidential rhetoric to move the opposition, but there’s no doubt that, when yoked to the right policy proposals and legislative strategy, it’s capable of moving the agenda. And this is a good time for the Obama administration to move the agenda." Presidential rhetoric has never DIRECTLY moved "the opposition," but if it moves the country, that causes the opposition to move. Either by changing their position or by getting voted out of office. The former is not going to happen, but it is time for the president to begin to focus on the latter.
As for "moving the agenda," well, there is never a bad time for the president to do that. And for all the mockery of the all powerful bully pulpit, there is not a person in the world more capable of setting the agenda than the president. The president chose to set the deficit cutting agenda (in my view, a terrible mistake). And now he has the opportunity to set the agenda on jobs. It is a tremendous opportunity. Historically, presidents, great and awful, have done so, especially in the last century. More on the flip.
Some have argued that presidential speeches do not matter. Standing in isolation, this is generally true (but not always). But as the launch of a debate, a presidential speech can, and almost always does, set the agenda and the terms of the debate. Even "presidential speeches don't matter" adherent Jonathan Bernstein writes:
Presidential speeches are not, however, always a waste of time, even if they don’t really move public opinion or change votes in Congress. High-profile speeches certainly can put attention onto an issue that a president talks about. That can be important because it will give political actors something to support and to oppose, even if it doesn’t change minds. It can also send clear signals about a president’s priorities. [Emphasis added]
This is, in fact, the true meaning of the "bully pulpit," the president's ability to put an issue, on his terms, on the front burner. This is no small thing. Certainly President Obama's focus on deficit reduction put that issue on the front burner.
A speech is a start. And given the lack of attention to job creation and the economy in Washington, the president really is starting with a clean slate in terms of the debate.
Historically, presidents have been able to launch new issues and reframe existing ones. The granddaddy of them all for me is FDR's first inaugural address:
The key passages (imo of course):
Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily, this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and have abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.
True, they have tried. But their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit, they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They only know the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.
[...] This Nation is asking for action, and action now. Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously. It can be accomplished in part by direct recruiting by the Government itself, treating the task as we would treat the emergency of a war, but at the same time, through this employment, accomplishing great -- greatly needed projects to stimulate and reorganize the use of our great natural resources.
[...] We must act. We must act quickly. And finally, in our progress towards a resumption of work, we require two safeguards against a return of the evils of the old order. There must be a strict supervision of all banking and credits and investments. [...]
These, my friends, are the lines of attack. I shall presently urge upon a new Congress in special session detailed measures for their fulfillment, and I shall seek the immediate assistance of the 48 States.
[...] I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a stricken nation in the midst of a stricken world may require. These measures, or such other measures as the Congress may build out of its experience and wisdom, I shall seek, within my constitutional authority, to bring to speedy adoption.
But, in the event that the Congress shall fail to take one of these two courses, in the event that the national emergency is still critical, I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me. I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis—broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.
For the trust reposed in me, I will return the courage and the devotion that befit the time. I can do no less. [Emphasis added]
Yes, FDR had just won a landslide election. Yes, the Democrats had swept to overwhelming control of the Congress. But a vision was needed to leverage those political tools to good effect. FDR's inaugural speech set the terms of the debate of what we needed to do and what we were going to do.
Yes, there was continued and determined followup. But the speech signalled all that came after. FDR's first inaugural speech mattered. It framed the debate. It showed the way.
This is but one example of a presidential speech "mattering." There are many others. And the course of American history demonstrates how partisan speeches have shaped the debate on policy. I often reference Abraham Lincoln's 1860 Cooper Union address as perhaps the height of political speechmaking. But it is important to also remember the many speeches Lincoln gave in his losing Senate race in 1858. Even losing political candidates can move the debate.
Lincoln's speeches were partisan about policy. FDR's speeches were partisan about policy. Indeed, as I wrote last week, Barack Obama's 2008 nomination acceptance speech was partisan about policy.
In 2006, when the notion of a President Obama seemed much farther in the future than reality provided, I wrote a post titled What Obama Needs To Learn From Richard Hofstader, Abraham Lincoln and FDR. I wrote:
[...] Obama has learned nothing from Lincoln and nothing from Hofstadter. As wonderfully talented a politician he is, until he does, he will not best serve the interests of progressives and the Democratic Party.
To conclude this piece, I want to discuss one overlooked insight of Hofstadter that is highlighted and yet curiously devalued by Professor Wilentz. To me it holds one of the central principles of a triumphant liberalism, one that even today's conservatives can not challenge:
The Age of Reform's greatest achievement, often overlooked, is in its reappraisal of the New Deal, reviving and reinforcing the more positive passages in The American Political Tradition. Whereas most historians (and many New Dealers) saw Roosevelt's reforms as a continuation of Populism and Progressivism, Hofstadter affirmed the New Deal as a sharp break with the past. The old sentimental, quixotic, and self-deluding forays against capitalism gave way to Keynesian policy and the provision of social welfare. Nineteenth-century individualism and anti-monopolism fell before a fuller appreciation of the inevitable size and scope of American business. Cities and urban life, including the party political machines, which had been the bane of Jeffersonian liberalism, became an accepted, even vaunted element in the New Deal coalition. Under FDR, in short, American liberalism came of age.
Following the long-term abandonment, at least philosophically, of New Deal liberalism by both major political parties, Hofstadter's account of the New Deal's spirit repays a new look—not as an exercise in nostalgia but in order to help recover and refurbish a suppressed but still essential American political tradition. As was his wont, Hofstadter overstated his case, underestimating both the intense social conflicts that helped push the reforms forward and the degree to which Progressive ideas (particularly in the area of labor reform) guided New Deal thinking. But simply by identifying the change and by portraying what Hofstadter called the New Deal's "chaos of experimentation" as a sign of vibrancy, not weakness, The Age of Reform concisely defined the transformation of modern American liberalism, two years before Schlesinger took up the issue, in much greater detail, in The Crisis of the Old Order, 1919-1933. For that, apart from everything else, Hofstadter's book retains some of its old luster—and has even acquired a new urgency.
Wilentz is both incisive and dull in this passage. Incisive in recognizing the sharp break that the New Deal represented and dull in misunderstanding that while the ideals of the progressive movements that predated The New Deal nourished it, the fundamental rethinking of the role of government, particularly the federal government was, in many ways, revolutionary. I think Professor Bruce Ackerman's conception of a "Constitutional Moment" best describes it:
Under [President Bush]'s leadership, the American people would have initiated a new constitutional order that had self-consciously repudiated the regime founded by Franklin Delano Roosevelt; the era of Social Security and the United Nations was now dead, and the Court was going to build a new constitutional system based on very different premises.
There would have been nothing unprecedented in this scenario. This was precisely how Roosevelt created the modern constitutional regime in the first place. His eight appointments to the Supreme Court repudiated the laissez-faire constitutionalism of the preceding era and created the activist national government we know today. Indeed, if the New Deal-Great Society regime is going to die, there is a certain propriety in seeing it killed in precisely the same manner in which it was born.
To be sure, Roosevelt had far greater popular support in triggering his constitutional revolution than Bush could ever claim. When he filled his first seat with Justice Hugo Black in 1937, 76 out of 96 senators were New Deal Democrats. The New Deal Court's repudiation of laissez-faire constitutionalism proceeded with the support of majorities in every region of the country. This obviously would not be true today, even if the president's dreams had been fulfilled.
Professor Ackerman's theory is more complex than this short description—it requires the book length treatment he has given it. But the significance is the same. FDR changed our philosophy of government and the FDR liberal philosophy remains that which we follow today.
How did FDR do it and can Democrats defend FDR liberalism today? Maybe not by calling it FDR liberalism but they surely can and do when they have the courage of their convictions. The most prominent of these instances was the fight to save Social Security. Faced with Media hostility, Republican demagogy and flat out lies, Democrats rallied to the FDR liberalism banner and crushed the Republican attempts to roll back the clock. FDR would have been proud of Democrats in that fight. No triangulation. Good old fashioned political populism won the day.
And that is FDR's lesson for Obama. Politics is not a battle for the middle. It is a battle for defining the terms of the political debate. It is a battle to be able to say what is the middle. [. . .]
So after all that, what do I think the president should say in his speech on Thursday? Simply this, he should say what HE thinks we need to do to address our economic and jobs crisis. Not what "bipartisans" think we should do. What HE thinks we should do. Will it happen with this Congress? Of course not.
But the battle of ideas—this "partisanship" over policy—is what will set the stage for the choices the American people must make in the next election. The nation needs the debate.
And the president must lead it.