Today on the train, looking over people’s shoulders to read the headlines from the NY Post, Daily News, Times, and Wall Street Journal, many of them had the same slug for Obama’s speech yesterday (text here) — “We’re a Triple-A Country” — but then noted the market dropped even further after the speech. As if Obama had failed, which indeed he did, in my view, as we’ll see.
The speech yesterday reminded me of another speech, Jimmy Carter’s “malaise speech” which also was mocked afterwards as a sign that Carter was clueless. And that Reagan ran all over Carter in the 1980 election in part because Carter was being Carter, too touchy feely and emotional when the country wanted a robust response to the energy crisis of the late 1970s. So I looked up both speeches and found some rather unexpected differences.
First, Carter’s speech is amazingly prescient and engaged (emphasis mine):
During the past 3 years I’ve spoken to you on many occasions about national concerns, the energy crisis, reorganizing the Government, our Nation’s economy, and issues of war and especially peace. But over those years the subjects of the speeches, the talks, and the press conferences have become increasingly narrow, focused more and more on what the isolated world of Washington thinks is important. Gradually, you’ve heard more and more about what the Government thinks or what the Government should be doing and less and less about our Nation’s hopes, our dreams, and our vision of the future.
Ten days ago I had planned to speak to you again about a very important subject—energy. For the fifth time I would have described the urgency of the problem and laid out a series of legislative recommendations to the Congress. But as I was preparing to speak, I began to ask myself the same question that I now know has been troubling many of you. Why have we not been able to get together as a nation to resolve our serious energy problem?
It’s clear that the true problems of our Nation are much deeper—deeper than gasoline lines or energy shortages, deeper even than inflation or recession. And I realize more than ever that as President I need your help. So, I decided to reach out and listen to the voices of America.
While it is historically true DC politicians often ignore the will of the people in favor of people with money, people who can help their political and financial careers, it also is true there are moments when this willful ignorance is out of control. Today is one moment, for example, when the Pete Peterson’s of the world use unemployment, economic collapse, and other misery to push their agenda of cutting Social Security and Medicare (which they don’t need). It also is true that “listening to the people” is a worn out trope of politicians. But this speech suggests Carter was unwilling to simply address the surface of the problem and, instead, tried to get to the root of the problem.
Here’s more of Carter from his speech:
Often you see paralysis and stagnation and drift. You don’t like it, and neither do I. What can we do?
First of all, we must face the truth, and then we can change our course. We simply must have faith in each other, faith in our ability to govern ourselves, and faith in the future of this Nation. Restoring that faith and that confidence to America is now the most important task we face. It is a true challenge of this generation of Americans.
One of the visitors to Camp David last week put it this way: “We’ve got to stop crying and start sweating, stop talking and start walking, stop cursing and start praying. The strength we need will not come from the White House, but from every house in America.”
And this telling bit, also very direct and staccato:
In little more than two decades we’ve gone from a position of energy independence to one in which almost half the oil we use comes from foreign countries, at prices that are going through the roof. Our excessive dependence on OPEC has already taken a tremendous toll on our economy and our people. This is the direct cause of the long lines which have made millions of you spend aggravating hours waiting for gasoline. It’s a cause of the increased inflation and unemployment that we now face. This intolerable dependence on foreign oil threatens our economic independence and the very security of our Nation.
The energy crisis is real. It is worldwide. It is a clear and present danger to our Nation. These are facts and we simply must face them.
Now listen to Mr. Obama yesterday, also facing a crisis (my emphasis):
Making these reforms doesn’t require any radical steps. What it does require is common sense and compromise. There are plenty of good ideas about how to achieve long-term deficit reduction that doesn’t hamper economic growth right now. Republicans and Democrats on the bipartisan fiscal commission that I set up put forth good proposals. Republicans and Democrats in the Senate’s Gang of Six came up with some good proposals. John Boehner and I came up with some good proposals when we came close to agreeing on a grand bargain.
So it’s not a lack of plans or policies that’s the problem here. It’s a lack of political will in Washington. It’s the insistence on drawing lines in the sand, a refusal to put what’s best for the country ahead of self-interest or party or ideology. And that’s what we need to change.
I realize that after what we just went through, there’s some skepticism that Republicans and Democrats on the so-called super committee, this joint committee that’s been set up, will be able to reach a compromise, but my hope is that Friday’s news will give us a renewed sense of urgency. I intend to present my own recommendations over the coming weeks on how we should proceed. And that committee will have this administration’s full cooperation. And I assure you, we will stay on it until we get the job done.
And this bit right afterwards (emphasis mine):
Of course, as worrisome as the issues of debt and deficits may be, the most immediate concern of most Americans, and of concern to the marketplace as well, is the issue of jobs and the slow pace of recovery coming out of the worst recession in our lifetimes.
And the good news here is that by coming together to deal with the long-term debt challenge, we would have more room to implement key proposals that can get the economy to grow faster. Specifically, we should extend the payroll tax cut as soon as possible, so that workers have more money in their paychecks next year and businesses have more customers next year.
We should continue to make sure that if you’re one of the millions of Americans who’s out there looking for a job, you can get the unemployment insurance that your tax dollars contributed to. That will also put money in people’s pockets and more customers in stores.
Notice the difference? Are you awake after reading Obama?
First, Carter has a clear empathetic world view. He sees the big picture. Obama is not only stuck in the weeds, he has no clearly stated world view. Although, given his policies, if Obama were to state his world view (e.g. Big Business can solve most or all problems we face as a country, the status quo is fine), it would be rejected outright by most Americans. And cutting the payroll tax is cutting Social Security, a policy rejected by a solid majority of Americans. Worse, when you read the full speech, Obama has a laundry list of solutions (e.g. extending unemployment, rebuilding infrastructure) without any over-arching world view (e.g. wealth is impossible without taxpayer funded infrastructure, taking from the poor to give to the rich is immoral and an outrage).
Also notice that Obama ties debt reduction with using US government spending to restart the economy. It’s classic Herbert Hoover or, more precisely, Hoover’s Treasury Secretary. In 2011, given the history of the Depression, it’s astounding to hear a Harvard educated President clearly out of touch with history and reality. And without a moral spine. Debt reduction in an economic crisis is insane (defined as doing the same thing repeatedly while expecting different results), counter-productive, and a proven failure. Massive government spending on infrastructure, windfall profit taxes on oil, re-taxing wealth, these are the rational time-tested ways government can (and should) get us out of the economic ditch Republicans and neoliberal Democrats put us in.
Here’s another big difference, first with Obama winding up:
Markets will rise and fall, but this is the United States of America. No matter what some agency may say, we’ve always been and always will be a AAA country. For all of the challenges we face, we continue to have the best universities, some of the most productive workers, the most innovative companies, the most adventurous entrepreneurs on Earth. What sets us apart is that we’ve always not just had the capacity, but also the will to act — the determination to shape our future; the willingness in our democracy to work out our differences in a sensible way and to move forward, not just for this generation but for the next generation.
Obama then goes on to praise the military in Afghanistan, a war he continued from Bush, against public opinion, and a key contributor to the massive budget deficits. Notice also, in the face of complete rout of liberalism in US government policy, Obama still says we must “work out our differences in a sensible way” even though the aristocratic policies (de-taxation, de-regulation, wage suppression) have led to total ruin of the US economy after three decades. Compromise will not solve the problem when aristocratic policies are an abject failure yet still dominant. Obama’s common sense solutions are Republican solutions that benefit mostly Republican constituencies. And it’s a little late (and cynical) to propose these policies when he knows the House is guaranteed to reject them. Obama could, and should, barnstorm the country to educate people about how they’ve been ripped off for decades. But he won’t. So his words are empty.
One other point about Obama’s common sense solutions: they’re neither common nor sensible. Simply look at Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, France, Belgium, Germany, Spain, the Czech Republic, these all are countries with universal health care, free or subsidized education, living wages, and sufficient retirement pensions. And six weeks of paid vacation. Yet these countries are more productive than we are, have less poverty, and higher standards of living (defined as both economic and quality of life).
These countries have managed, in their own ways, to balance the competing interests within their societies. Absolutely there are wealthy Norwegians and Germans. But you don’t have to be wealthy to live a minimally decent life in a place like Belgium. What prevents Americans from having a similar society? How did we find ourselves in such a savage country, where we tolerate endless wealth and poverty? The existence of these countries proves Obama’s ideas, and the Republican ideas, are bunk. We have options. We can and must do better.
Here’s Carter winding up:
In closing, let me say this: I will do my best, but I will not do it alone. Let your voice be heard. Whenever you have a chance, say something good about our country. With God’s help and for the sake of our Nation, it is time for us to join hands in America. Let us commit ourselves together to a rebirth of the American spirit. Working together with our common faith we cannot fail.
Oddly enough, for his reputation as an average speaker or worse, Carter comes across as more human, more direct, and more engaged with other people. Obama with all his rhetorical gifts comes across as a sell out, someone who really does not care to question the status quo, never mind challenge it. Obama appears quite happy to live in a universe of known policies and outcomes, even failed outcomes. Carter’s speech gives the impression that, if his questioning led him to discard his own beliefs, Carter would embrace the challenge. Obama not so much.
I expected to find two sniveling out of touch Presidents in these speeches. Instead, Carter comes across as a grown up, whether you agree with the results of his soul searching or not, while Obama comes across as the classic Company Man, an empty suit. At best, Obama is deluded. At worst, he is part of the (Republican) Borg.