The idea that President Barack Obama’s speech Wednesday in Galesburg, Ill., was about the economy is nonsense. Of course the text—a series of clichés that could have been formulated by a computer—was "about" the economy in so far as economic policy was the topic at hand. But there is a difference between the content of a speech and its purpose. The content may have sounded wonky, but the object of President Obama’s remarks had nothing to do with economic hardship or income inequality. His purpose was political. And for that reason it would be a mistake to dismiss him.
Almost all of the reaction to the president’s speech has focused on its content. Conservatives and Republicans, for obvious reasons, oppose the president and ignored him. Obama’s supporters acknowledged that his remarks contained no new policies or ideas, did not break any news, and could not trumpet any drastic improvement in the economy. E.J. Dionne suggested that the purpose of the speech was "changing the terms of the national debate and leaving behind an intellectual legacy that shapes how future generations see the country and its possibilities." Check back in 2040 to see if it was a success. The mainstream press was almost as skeptical as the Republicans. Chuck Todd of NBC said the White House seemed "stuck." But that assumes the object of the speech was to convey something novel to the public. It was not.
The situation is less confusing when you look at it from the president’s perspective. Politico quoted an unnamed White House official who suggested the administration is adrift, out of sorts, ill at ease. President Obama’s agenda and approval ratings have been in trouble for some time. He made the mistake of assuming that defeat in 2012 would break the "fever" raging in the GOP, allowing him to fulfill the rest of his liberal wish list. But the fever has not broken. The high point of his term so far has been the first income tax increase since 1993 and the confirmation, after a tough fight, of the most controversial defense secretary in recent history. Those victories came in January and February.
In the months since, President Obama has unsuccessfully lobbied for gun control, stood by while the Republicans accepted the sequester, watched as the immigration deal reached in the Senate ran aground in the House, announced a series of environmental policies that were quickly attacked and almost as quickly forgotten, endured controversies involving the investigation of journalists, unlawful activity at the IRS, and a massive intelligence breach, and delayed a major piece of his health care law. The occasional good economic news has been counterbalanced by a slowdown in emerging markets and by the ongoing problem of long-term unemployment. Meanwhile, as one would expect, the president’s approval ratings have fallen. The prospect of what liberals might consider a successful second term grows fainter by the day.
What President Obama does do well is attack the Republicans. He excels at telling audiences that the GOP is composed of plutocrats who want nothing more than to see pensioners starve and autistic children denied care. When it comes to describing his opponents in fatuous, cartoonish, and unflattering terms that only Melissa Harris-Perry could love, when it comes to playing the reasonable moderate victimized by radical, nihilist conservatives—sorry, anarchists—Barack Obama has no equal. Hence Wednesday’s speech, and Thursday’s speech, and however many additional speeches the president delivers in the coming months. Their purpose is to improve the political economy of Barack Obama, not the fortune of the United States.
The phrase to keep in mind is "phony." Both press secretary Jay Carney and the president used it to describe the IRS, Justice Department, and NSA scandals. After addressing each of these stories, and going so far as to say he was deeply concerned about the activities at the IRS, the president seems to have decided he is tired of answering questions. He has adopted the age-old tactic of dismissing inconvenient news as false and irrelevant. The thinking must be that forceful denials will discredit congressional investigations into the administration and lead the news media to downplay additional scoops. It’s worked before.
The second part of the president’s strategy is to bait the Republicans into shutting down the government. For years now, Obama and the Democrats have salivated at the prospect of a government shutdown, assuming the outcome would be the same as in 1995: The Republicans would lose in the court of public opinion and fold, strengthening the president’s position and improving his approval rating. But the Republicans have done an excellent job at preventing that from happening. The process has been messy, conservatives have screamed, taxes have been raised, and defense has been cut dangerously, but at each point Congress has found a way to keep the government running and American creditors paid. This is an achievement—substantively, of course, but also politically. The White House, the Democrats, and the press want nothing more than to prove to the American public and the world that the Republican Party is a group of childish wing nuts. Denying them the pleasure has saved the GOP a considerable amount of heartburn.
What the president is doing in this series of speeches on "the economy" is softening the ground for the battle over budgets and the debt ceiling that will take place in September. Beginning this fight earlier than expected allows him freely to define the Republican position in his typical, ludicrous way: The GOP, not having any ideas, is willing to shut down the government and deny you Social Security out of loyalty to their millionaire corporate backers. Obama was going to make this case anyway, but starting the campaign now provides a way to escape the scandals and capture free summer media. The economy is a pretext.
Republicans have been far too complacent in response to Obama’s challenge. It is easy to dismiss him, to ignore him, to criticize the content of his remarks, to relish in the decline of his political stature. Lord knows I’ve done it. Reckoning with what he is saying—and determining what exactly to do in the budget showdown this fall—is much harder.
Relish the late night jokes at Obama’s expense all you want, but do not assume they will persist indefinitely. Obama remains the president. There remains plenty more he can do to weaken America. Don’t pay attention to what he says. Pay attention to why he’s saying it.