Obama Seeks Do-Over on Economy

“I want to thank the members of this body for your efforts and your support in these last several months, and especially those who've taken the difficult votes that have put us on a path to recovery. I also want to thank the American people for their patience and resolve during this trying time for our nation.

But we did not come here just to clean up crises. We came here to build a future. So tonight, I return to speak to all of you about an issue that is central to that future -- and that is the issue of health care.”

-- President Obama in a speech to a joint session of Congress on Sept. 9, 2009

Two years ago today, President Obama delivered his first special address to a joint session of Congress – a call for the passage of an unwritten health care law.

Last night, the president delivered his second special address to a joint session of Congress – a bid to revive his faltering re-election effort with a third stimulus package.

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    If Obama hadn’t given the first special address, he might not have needed to try the second one.

    Power Play is a political note, not a policy paper, and will leave to experts dissecting the specific provisions of the president’s $447 billion stimulus plan. But in political terms, what the president was doing in the House chamber on Thursday night was asking for a do-over.

    This stimulus package is a little more than half the size of Obama’s first stimulus measure, the February 2009 package. The package on offer now is approximately half tax cuts and half deficit spending, while the original was about two-thirds straight cash.

    But the idea is the same: temporary tax cuts and deficit spending aimed at jolting the economy back to life. Again, the money is for public works projects, government employee salaries and green jobs. The president talked too about pressuring government-backed mortgage firms to give lower interest rates to those with poor credit, but that’s beyond his control.

    Conservatives mock it as “son of stimulus,” but it is at least the little brother of the original plan.

    What’s really different is the climate in which Obama is making his current stimulus proposal. The first plan was promised to prevent 8 percent unemployment. This plan is promised to bring down unemployment from 9.1 percent. When Obama called in a Keynesian shock and awe airstrike on the economy in 2009, he had a 64 percent Gallup job approval rating. Today, it is 44 percent.

    The most important political event between big brother stimulus and his younger sibling now on offer wasn’t the midterm elections of last year, it was the enactment of the president’s health care law on March 23, 2010.

    Even his friends in Washington warned Obama that he was biting off more than he could chew by plunging immediately into the health care law before the economy had righted itself. Americans were too nervous and Congress had too much to do to allow for the creation of a new entitlement program.

    But the famous motto of those days was “never let a crisis go to waste,” and the Obama team decided that passing a new health law was a now or never proposition. Despite having spent little time in Congress, Obama dismissed claims that he would overload the legislative process. “We can walk and chew gum at the same time,” he liked to say. But, alas, they could not.

    When the going got tough, the president pressed on. When the economy shuddered, when the polls tumbled, when the public option died, when Scott Brown got elected, Obama pressed on.

    It took 13 grueling months, despite starting with the highest degree of Democratic control of Congress since 1977, for the president to cajole a health law out of his teammates.

    The immediate consequences from a policy standpoint were tiny – Obama backloaded the law so that the sweeping, historic components would be pushed past the 2012 election. Now the imposition of those provisions is in serious doubt. If the Supreme Court overturns them or a Republican gets elected president next year, the “bigness” Obama sought will be wiped away like the statue of Ozymondias.

    The political consequences, however, were massive and instantaneous. In fighting for his law, Obama convinced independents that he was the liberal Republicans always claimed he was. He also united and electrified a conservative movement exhausted after the Bush years. But worse, Obama convinced economically anxious Americans that he just didn’t get it.

    The election that followed was a rout for the president and his party. The conventional wisdom in Washington was that the Obama Democrats lost so badly because of the economy. But that’s sort of like saying the Saints lost to the Packers because of the score.

    If the president and his supporters in Congress had stayed focused on jobs and the economy throughout 2009 and 2010, their losses would not have been nearly so bad. Even if the jobless rate were just as high and even if the forecast was just as gloomy, the Democrats wouldn’t have looked so out of touch.

    “Why didn’t we have a jobs plan before? Because we had to get right to work on a stuffed-sausage of a health bill that won’t take effect until 2014.”

    But the economy likely would not have been, or continued to be, as bad. The health law sent capitalists running for cover and convinced many in the business community that Obama was no moderate. Whether the president thinks it is fair or not, most in the business world believe his signature law will hurt their bottom lines. And even those who don’t are still left to deal with massive uncertainty now and for years to come.

    Had the president opted to wait until the second half of his term to start his healthcare Drang nach Osten, there might be fewer trillions of dollars sheltering from the current economic storm. Perhaps he would not have to name drop Warren Buffett and Jeffrey Immelt, as in “Hey, some of my best friends are businessmen!”

    The president now has a short-term political tactic for making Republicans look bad on jobs, but he doesn’t seem to have a strategy for economic or political revival. The months ahead in Congress will be dedicated mostly to sorting out the budget battles left over from earlier in the year, and Obama is picking new fights in hopes of changing the discussion.

    Some jobs bill will likely pass Congress this year, and the campaign swing which Obama began last night will likely help get him back to 46 percent or 48 percent in the polls as Democrats rally to his cause, but the president largely set his course for re-election two years ago today.

    And Now, A Word from Charles

    “This is the first campaign kickoff speech in American history that is delivered by a president in the House of Representatives.

    Obama did a pivot. A year ago he was saying -- up to six months ago – ‘My plans are working. The economy is recovering. It's slow. Everybody is impatient, but hang on.’ He doesn't say that anymore. His new message is entirely new. ‘I have a new plan now. It's going to work. The Republicans are going to stop it. And on Election Day next year if we have 9 percent unemployment or worse or a second recession it's them, not us.’ That is his entire re-election campaign message.”

    -- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report w/Bret Baier