Steve Chapman
In the summer of 1971, the nation was in the doldrums. Inflation was rising, and unemployment was uncomfortably high. The stock market was sinking. Polls indicated President Richard Nixon could lose his 1972 re-election bid.

He decided major changes were in order. On the evening of Aug. 15, 1971, Nixon went on TV to announce new economic policies -- the most drastic being a freeze on all wages, prices and rents. He assured his worried audience, "Our best days lie ahead."

The speech was a triumph. The stock market soared. Newspaper editorials hailed his courage. One poll found that 75 percent of Americans supported the plan. "In all the years I've been doing this," said the pollster, "I've never seen anything this unanimous." Nixon's economic strategy was a stroke of political genius.

In practice, however, it was a disaster. A powerful new bureaucracy arose. The dollar collapsed. Inflation persisted. Shortages of vital commodities emerged. In the end, Nixon had to abandon his program, but not until plenty of damage had been done.

Barack Obama's Thursday address to Congress was his attempt to seize the moment as Nixon did. But instead of something new and outwardly promising, all he had to offer was a variation on things that have already been tried, to little apparent effect.

His real problem, though, is the same one that Nixon eventually came to understand: the painful limits of his capacity. Obama does not have the power to create jobs, any more than Nixon had the power to curtail inflation. The central theme of his speech -- that millions of Americans would go back to work if only Congress will approve his plan -- rings false.

Nor is it likely that his aggressive, can-do tone will imbue consumers with the bounding confidence needed to invigorate the flagging economy. Unlike Nixon, who went on TV in the days of three channels, Obama couldn't count on reaching the vast majority of Americans.

Nor could he expect the full attention of those who did pay attention: In the age of Twitter and Facebook, the sniping began as soon as he did. The golden age of the bully pulpit is long past.

Presidential sermons on the economy rarely meet their goals. Gerald Ford's 1974 "Whip Inflation Now" speech called on Americans to unite against this menace, but it ended up being the butt of jokes. Jimmy Carter exhorted us to treat the energy crisis as the "moral equivalent of war." He was ridiculed for wearing a cardigan sweater.

Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton are remembered not for their speeches about the economy but for its stellar performance during their time in office. Nixon may have shown that words can change moods for a while. But they can't alter real-world outcomes.


Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.
 

 
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