Obama's Really Big Speech

Washington Matters

Obama's Really Big Speech

It's become something of a cliche for pundits to talk about the line that President Obama must walk a fine line -- inspiring confidence in the government's ability to fix the economy while not raising expectations so high that Americans think a recovery is imminent. In fact, newspaper op-ed writers and TV talking heads have already declared that how well he does that will be the standard for grading Obama's speech to Congress Tuesday night. But it shouldn't be. 

It's silly for commentators to describe this speech as the "most important" of Obama's 35-day presidency (for a while, every speech will be), but that's what they're all doing. Nor does it make sense to rush, as many did, to give Obama a grade on his first month in office. I know the web has shortened the news cycle, but we ought to at least give the guy the traditional 100 days before declaring him a success or failure.

Sure, this is an important week for the president. But so was last week and so, too, is next week. Say what you will about his hits and misses, but he's a man in constant motion, rushing from one crisis to the next, sticking his finger in one hole in the dike hoping to contain the problem long enough to reach the next hole. First, the stimulus, then banking, then housing, now back to banking. And in the meantime this week, he's trying to look ahead -- with today's White House summit on long-term fiscal strategies and a budget proposal Thursday that aims to cut the deficit in half during his first term, a difficult task made more difficult because Obama's decided to keep his word and insist on more honest bookkeeping.

Tomorrow's speech will try to look beyond the economic crisis and include the new president's plans for health care, education, energy and a host of other issues. But he'll try to explain why fixing those will help contribute to an economic growth in the long-term. And of course the economy's woes will overshadow his plans, no matter how much he talks about them.


My colleague Beth Belton last week urged Obama to stop talking about an economic catastrophe and try to inspire a little confidence. There's no question that she's right about the importance of confidence. There can be no recovery without it. But Americans are a lot wiser -- and most of them are a lot worse off -- than they were two years ago when the Bush administration assured them that the economic fundamentals were sound and there was nothing to be worried about. Early indications are that they appreciate Obama's candor. They want to be treated as partners in the crisis, not talked down to or manipulated. And just as he won't mislead them about the budget deficit, he can't mislead them about the mess the country is in.

But the public needs more than a candid appraisal of where we are. Americans desperately need assurance that Obama has solutions and the ability to implement them. Support for the stimulus has climbed back to 60%, but thanks to the way the debate and negotiations were handled, many worry that it won't do enough or work fast enough. Obama's housing plan got relatively favorable reviews, not because it will bring a quick housing recovery, but because it may slow the flood of foreclosures and have some stimulative effect. But Obama's banking plan is the big hole in the dyke that isn't even close to being filled.  It's a complicated issue and in normal times, we might be able to let Treasury have more time to work out the details. But these aren't normal times, and the first attempt to explain the banking plan was a complete dud.

Obama should take over that job from Secretary Tim Geithner and use tomorrow's speech to somehow let the public -- and the markets -- know that he's on top of the issue. That's the best -- maybe the only way -- to really inspire confidence. And that's the real challenge of tomorrow night's speech.