I occasionally listen to the New Yorker Political Scene podcast to find out what liberals say when they think they are talking only to one another. In a recent podcast on Obama's speeches, including the one he gave shortly after the Zimmerman verdict, one of the guests said something that was unintentionally revealing. He described interviewing the President concerning racial issues. Mr. Obama said [I am quoting David Remnick here] that "the most important thing I can do on race, I've already done. I'm the first elected African American President."
That reveals a lot about how Obama understands his job. It is to be something more than to do anything. Mr. Obama thinks that from his presence in the Oval Office or at the many podiums policy and change will radiate out without his having to bother much with the details. So when he decides to "pivot" to some new topic in his speeches, that alone is presidential action.
For a case in point, Mickey Kaus considers the President's recent speech on the economy.
"Washington's taken its eye off the ball. And I'm here to say this needs to stop. … Our focus has to be on the basic economic issues that the matter most to you — the people we represent. (Applause.) That's what we have to spend our time on and our energy on and our focus on.
… [R]educing poverty, reducing inequality, growing opportunity. That's what we need. (Cheers, applause.) That's what we need. That's what we need right now. (Cheers, applause.)
That's what we need to be focused on." [E.A.]
Okay, Obama is here to say that "Washington" needs to keep its eye on the ball. But as Kaus points out, it's Obama himself who has been focusing on issues that have nothing to do with the economy.
Since his reelection, the President's policy agenda has included the following:
- Gun Control
- Climate Change
It is reasonable to think that all three are important and that they may have long term economic consequences. None of them, however, is likely to have any effect on the economic problems we face right now. Climate change may have some long term effects on poverty, inequality, and opportunity, but wind power and the war against coal aren't going to return any dividends in the near term. In poll after poll, these issues rank at the bottom of those that "matter most" to most Americans.
Now that the President has decided to pivot to the economy, what proposals does he offer? Kaus teases them out of the speech, and the result is a list of trivialities.
If the President understood his job as setting the agenda for policies to be enacted by Congress, he might want to step back and ask why the present economic recovery has been so terribly anemic with regard to job creation. He might want to ask why labor force participation has decline precipitously, or why so many of the jobs recently created are part time. He might want to direct his advisors to offer some remedies. That's a tall order and it's not clear that anyone knows what to do. Still, we might expect our chief executive to at least make an effort. That's not our man.