Obama channels his inner FDR in jobs speech

President Barack Obama addressing a joint session of Congress on Thursday.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
President Barack Obama addressing a joint session of Congress on Thursday.

As President Obama made his way down the aisle of the House chamber to give his big jobs speech, shaking hands with the men, kissing some of the women, smiling and joking, a grey-haired female congresswoman leaned in. She didn’t give Obama a kiss, but she gave him an exhortation. “Be bold and brave,” she said, loud enough that it was pretty much the only thing anyone said to Obama that I could hear on the TV.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey
REUTERS/Larry Downing
Rep. Lynn Woolsey

I liked her. I was able to figure out that she is Rep. Lynn Woolsey, a Democrat from the euphonious hometown of Petaluma, Calif. She calls herself the first welfare mother ever elected to Congress. She’s retiring after this term, but she wasn’t retiring last night. As Obama moved past her, she leaned in and said it a second time, even louder. “Be bold and brave.”

This is me writing a feature story when I should be writing a news story:

* * *

I’ve written a couple of pieces discussing whether Obama could really go all FDR on us. They’ve been deeply into on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand territory because I was trying too damn hard to be reasonable. But Woolsey got to me. I wanted Obama to — why the heck not? — be bold and brave.

Was that it? Was that Obama being bold and brave? I guess so. I could’ve lived with bolder and braver but he seemed feistier than I’ve ever seen him. He talked faster than usual. He used a lot of urgent words. He dared the Repubs to go along with his latest stimulus ideas and threatened to take the message to every corner of the country if they don’t.

He kept saying “you should pass it now.” “Right away.” He said “right away” eight times. He probably did that too many times, although he stopped doing it right about the time my wife said he should cut that out. So maybe he knows something.

The speech was simple, although the details will follow in legislative language on Monday. It will be an actual concrete White House legislative proposal which we don’t often get from this White House. I suppose that represents trying to lead from the front.

It will be an extension of payroll tax cuts for workers and small businesses. Plus direct tax breaks to companies that do new hiring. Plus a fairly FDR-ish dollop of direct infrastructure spending to put hardhats to work directly on the federal dime, especially on building and modernizing schools. The one-year cost of the package: $450 billion. As you might have expected, Paul Krugman says it’s a good idea, bolder than he expected out of Obama, but not big enough.

Obama says he will follow soon after with another step, an increase in the small already-scheduled deficit reduction plan that Congress adopted at the end of the hideous debt-ceiling negotiation. I heard Bill O’Reilly complain post-speech that Obama should have put the whole thing on the table and not tease us with important details that are a week and a half away. A fair point, I suppose, but why quibble over a week and a half.

This may not get the attention it deserves, but he signaled that big additional deficit reduction proposal is coming and it will involve tax increases on the rich and entitlement cuts, which I guess we are suppose to call entitlement “reform.”

The Dems in the hall clapped for everything. The Repubs were stingy with applause. (You had to pity John Boehner, up there on camera the whole time behind Obama with his body language, facial expression and applause-o-meter decisions providing the instant Repub reaction to every Obamian syllable.)

The speech had no jokes, no anecdotes, no tributes to individuals in the audiences, no pacing other than a tone of hurry-up and urgency.

Of course it was political
Obviously this was all highly calculated, how could it not be? Some Repubs are dismissing it as a political speech. Well, duh. Of course it was. Shocking.

Obama engaged in quite a bit of Repub-taunting. He repeated several times that this package was full of ideas that Repubs have supported. Tax cuts! Did I mention tax cuts. If Congress doesn’t act, the temporary payroll tax cuts workers are now enjoying are set to expire, which led Obama to a snide reference to those (almost every Republican in Congress) who have signed Grover Norquist’s famous “Taxpayer Protection Pledge.” Thus:  

“I know that some of you have sworn oaths to never raise any taxes on anyone for as long as you live. Now is not the time to carve out an exception and raise middle-class taxes, which is why you should pass this bill right away.”

He reminded them that their own founding hero, Abraham Lincoln, found time and money in the middle of the Civil War for infrastructure spending (the Transcontinental Railroad).

Yes, the speech was a political challenge to congressional Repubs. He urged them to pass it “right away.” One suspects they will not. In that case, the speech and the proposal becomes a campaign argument. At least I’m trying to do something while your only goal is to make me a one-term president, Obama will say, did say.

Speaking of Rep. Bachmann, she provided one of the Repub instant reactions and said that everything Obama is proposing has been tried before and hasn’t worked. There you go. Game on. In today’s Washington, it’s not a good use of time to try to separate the politics from the policy any more.

History nerd strikes again
Speaking of FDR, Obama didn’t mention him, but he did borrow one of his themes.

Contrary to the image he later developed, Franklin D. Roosevelt did not run for office in 1932 on the Keynesian ideas that became the New Deal. In fact, he faulted Herbert Hoover for running a deficit and promised to balance the budget. But he also promised to keep trying things until something worked. Here’s how he put that in a fairly famous 1932 campaign speech:

“The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. The millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach. We need enthusiasm, imagination and the ability to face facts, even unpleasant ones, bravely. We need to correct, by drastic means if necessary, the faults in our economic system from which we now suffer. We need the courage of the young. Yours is not the task of making your way in the world, but the task of remaking the world which you will find before you. May every one of us be granted the courage, the faith and the vision to give the best that is in us to that remaking! “

Here’s Obama from last night, channeling his inner FDR:

“I don’t pretend that this plan will solve all our problems. It should not be, nor will it be, the last plan of action we propose. What’s guided us from the start of this crisis hasn’t been the search for a silver bullet. It’s been a commitment to stay at it — to be persistent — to keep trying every new idea that works, and listen to every good proposal, no matter which party comes up with it.”

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (22)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/09/2011 - 10:32 am.

    Lame speech. Lame plan. Obama continues to think he can win without a fight, and that dooms us all as losers. The sad thing is that if Obama got 90% of what he’s asking for it wouldn’t create any jobs. It didn’t work for Bush, why would it work for Obama?

  2. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 09/09/2011 - 11:14 am.

    If President Obama and his Democratic compatriots in congress do not bargain it away in their dysfunctional desire to always go along to get along,…

    (which would require that they do the AMAZINGLY healthy thing of recovering the missing “warrior” aspect of their personalities, which would enable them to gain the courage to completely ignore each and every inside-the-beltway Washington pundit, especially the lying weasels at weasel news, all of whom are just lobbyists for the corporatocracy),…

    this has a medium-term chance of being a win-win for us regular American people.

    Either the Republicans pass some of what the president is proposing and the employment portion of the economy starts to revive with the economy itself,…


    the Republicans continue their absolute intransigence and finally succeed in turning the REST of the general public against them, leaving them with NO support but the hardest core portion of their base,…

    leading us to replace anyone and everyone in the House and Senate who’s up for election in the fall of 2012 who also happens to have an “R” after their names.

    Of course we STILL aren’t dealing with the reality that we have far more people in this country who are willing and able to work than we need to accomplish all the work that needs to be done.

    Rather than all of us sharing in the fruits of automation and the long-dreamed-of time of increasing leisure and shorter work weeks, those at the top of the economic ladder have taken over the economic system, gathering ALL POSSIBLE RESOURCES to themselves by reducing their work forces and working their existing workers harder,…

    making sure that it is only the wealthy, themselves, who garner the benefits of increased efficiency in the work place that, it was once assumed, would go to ALL of us.

  3. Submitted by Arvonne Fraser on 09/09/2011 - 11:24 am.

    Thanks, as usual, for good reporting and comments. Watching the speech, the theme I caught was fairness, as in “fair shake” and “fair share.” His use of the term “you guys” and “people don’t have the luxury of waiting fourteen months” to the next election to settle the argument between Democrats and Republicans shows he’s in campaign mode so this should be an interesting time, despite the national pundits who are still fascinated with Bachman and Perry.

  4. Submitted by Patrick McManus on 09/09/2011 - 11:25 am.


    I see the parallels that you’re trying to draw between President Obama and FDR, but I think you’re reading it wrong.

    President Obama knows the GOP won’t pass the bill. He will traverse the country, pressure members of the Ways and Means Committee and Public Works Committee by putting their pet projects in the bill, and so on, knowing the bill will never pass. However, he’ll look like he tried his mightiest to pass it, only Congress got in the way.

    I suspect he also knows that the deficit super committee either won’t find a compromise or the bill won’t pass. But President Obama will fight for it, campaign on it, and tell the American people that Congress got in the way.

    He’s “give ’em hell Barry!” He’s Harry Truman circa 2012. The president’s going to blame Congress for not doing anything to help the economy (failure to pass the American Jobs Act, the deficit bill, any Republican version of a jobs bill, and a lack of overall legislation in general), while he works hard for these bills and lambasts Congress for failing to act. This is a Do Nothing Congress circa 2012, and the only way for President Obama to win is to be Harry Truman.

  5. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/09/2011 - 11:32 am.

    The test will come when the Repubs try to give him legislation that transfers the tax cuts to the rich and adds spending cuts for social welfare programs.
    Will he cave (again)?

  6. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/09/2011 - 12:27 pm.

    “He kept saying “you should pass it now.” “Right away.””

    Shouldn’t we wait for the other shoe to drop first? You know, like, how is this getting paid for? It reminds me of Pelosi saying they had to pass Obamacare before we knew what was in it. We all know how that turned out.

  7. Submitted by Barbara Miller on 09/09/2011 - 12:51 pm.

    Two things that struck me.

    Ever since his election, Obama has stuffed his anger about the run-amok party of “NO.” Last night, rather than choking on his/our anger, he managed his anger — a quite different posture, and one closer to the truth of what he’s feeling, were I to guess (and I were). We are fed up and rising with the serial intransigence of the radical right.

    Then, there’s this. Once or twice during the speech, it appeared to me that Boehner was actually listening to what Obama was saying. It was as though he’d peeked out from behind his facade of deep and abiding ennui, just for a moment. Imagine that.

  8. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 09/09/2011 - 01:12 pm.

    The whole ‘ideas Republicans have supported in the past’ thing is a bit too simple by half. I personally am fully in favor of a two week Mediterranean cruise for my family and have been for some time. But if I look at context, specifically whether it can be afforded or not, I really can’t support it anymore. Does that make me a hypocrite?
    Which isn’t to say that some of the ideas might be good. The targeted tax cuts for hiring long term unemployed could do some good. And I’m not thrilled about bumping up the payroll tax either. But the devil is in the details.
    Isn’t there something a little bit weird about pushing people to pass a plan that hasn’t even been written yet?

  9. Submitted by Richard O'Neil on 09/09/2011 - 01:36 pm.

    “Obama engaged in quite a bit of Repub-taunting.”

    How constructive!

  10. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/09/2011 - 02:22 pm.

    What I heard was more like the Obama I thought I was voting for in 2008. Would that he had done more of it prior to last night.

    Whether what I heard will translate into legislation that will do something meaningful to drag the economy out of the ditch into which Republican policies have driven it, remains to be seen. I think the Tea Party and its Congressional allies will continue to do their best to destroy the economy – a demonstration of just how much damage the combination of ignorance and hubris can do – and I’m inclined at the moment to second Patrick’s assertion in #4. Obama sounded a little bit like Harry Truman, and repeatedly pointing out that he’s saddled with a “do nothing” Congress, as Truman did in 1948, might be the only way he can get anything accomplished.

    Whether that will translate into something that helps most Americans, I don’t know. I’m not holding my breath, waiting for some sort of miracle.

  11. Submitted by Tim Walker on 09/09/2011 - 03:11 pm.

    Ray (#10), I’m holding my breath for the election in 2012 to turn over the House to Democrats.

    But, as our President pointed out last night, others don’t have the financial luxury to wait that long.

    The bottom line, IMHO: The GOP-controlled House will defeat this plan. To their peril, I hope.

  12. Submitted by Jim Halonen on 09/09/2011 - 03:19 pm.

    Read this article carefully and thoughtfully. This NYT writer highlights the inner Sarah Palin accrurately… It’s both parties, we all have to wake up to it.


  13. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 09/09/2011 - 03:24 pm.

    I hope Mr. Obama’s plan will help. He could and should dump the tax breaks to businesses, small or large but especially large, for “creating jobs,” however.

    When businesses need help, they hire people, with or without government incentives. When they don’t need more help, many of the largest ones take the incentive money, say thanks, and add it to their bottom line.

  14. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/09/2011 - 03:51 pm.

    Given this guy’s track record of failed policies, a “do nothing congress” is exactly what we need if they’re asked to pass nothing but failed ideas.

  15. Submitted by Peter Soulen on 09/09/2011 - 05:06 pm.

    Poor old GOP… If they work with the President, The economy might recover. Can’t have that and discredit the administration at the same time. Plus they lose TP and base support…

    If they work against the President they lose the support of independents. How are they going to keep thier jobs while making sure Obama loses his?

  16. Submitted by Brian Nelson on 09/09/2011 - 10:12 pm.

    What Denny fails to realize is that all of these ideas have been supported by republicans in the very recent history. They may be failures, but they are Denny-approved failures

  17. Submitted by Diane Clare on 09/10/2011 - 09:03 am.

    Bill still being written, but President Obama is already out and about taking it to the country.
    Here’s hoping my reps in Congress will read the bill before they vote.

  18. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/10/2011 - 09:37 am.

    I’m really curious; do people really think Obama presented a “jobs” plan here?

  19. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/10/2011 - 10:44 am.

    Obama didn’t put any more thought into his “plan” than his leftist supporters did analyzing it here.

    “You should pass it, right now”?…pffft. He’s trying to convince *himself*!

    Anyone can see he’s floundering, and I really believe he’ll be a happy man when he is relieved of duty in Nov of 2012.

    I haven’t seen a GOP challenger step up yet that fills me with confidence, but if we can’t have a skilled leader, at least we can have a guy that doesn’t advertise himself (and those that voted for him) as a naive boob.

  20. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/10/2011 - 11:31 am.


    Do I really need to point out that 90% of this “plan” is identical to Bush’s previous tax cut “plans”? Now I’m plenty critical, but it ridiculous to characterize this as a “leftist” plan… unless you think Bush was a leftist.

    So can agree with me that this plan is stupid, but you have to acknowledge that it was just as stupid when Bush did it.

  21. Submitted by Chris Fong on 09/10/2011 - 11:38 am.

    If you haven’t watched it already, I summarized Obama’s speech for you with Streamliner: http://srml.in/gfeTi/

  22. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/11/2011 - 09:32 am.

    When the public and corporations are deleveraging, as they currently are, and government is under a great deal of pressure to deleverage, as is currently the case, the economy is going to take an enormous hit even if there is a sharp drop in the currency and a shift in the current account, which we have seen only a little of. To say that politicians should be encouraging their electorate and private sectors to deleverage is, in fact, really irresponsible at this point. It is an invitation to further lengthen the already prolonged economic slump we find ourselves in. What we really need is a politician clever and charismatic enough to inspire businesses, and those individuals who are not in dire economic straits, to go out and spend and invest.

Leave a Reply