President Obama's address to Congress was exactly what we thought it would be: a shallow, callow campaign rally masquerading as something serious and important. As Charles Krauthammer framed it on Fox, tonight's address represented the first presidential campaign speech delivered in the House of Representatives in US history. Obama tried to strike an urgent tone, repeatedly instructing Congress to pass his plan "right away." These appeals for immediate action started before he even described a single idea. When those descriptions finally arrived, they were more of the same. Targeted tax credits for businesses and individuals (not all of which are bad ideas, but that economists agree won't make much of a dent). Infrastructure spending on highways, bridges, and schools. Bailouts to states to help save government jobs. Mortgage bailouts. Job training programs. And unspecific regulatory reform. Not all of these proposals are necessarily misguided, but not one of them is new.
It was the 2009 Recovery Act all over again, except with a smaller (but still gargantuan) price tag -- and without any acknowledgement of the previous stimulus or its abject failures. As Body Snatcher Obama tends to do, the president spoke tonight as if this was his very first jobs plan. Relevant, inconvenient context (think "shovel ready jobs") was nowhere to be found. Indeed, if this were such an obvious, "not controversial" set of ideas, why didn't Democrats pass them easily when they controlled every elected lever of power in Washington for two full years?
The tone and tenor of the address, which was sprinkled with superficial appeals to bipartisanship, was highly political and practically unhelpful. Strawmen were introduced and torched at record pace. Lost in the shuffle, the cost of this grand scheme somehow jumped from $300 Billion on Tuesday to nearly $450 Billion today. Those are estimates, of course, because no tangible legislation exists yet. Which means it can't be passed "right away," nor can it be scored by the CBO. As we've learned repeatedly in recent months, the CBO cannot score a speech. But not to worry, America. Everything is paid for! How? I'll let the president explain the nitty-gritty specifics:
The agreement we passed in July will cut government spending by about $1 trillion over the next ten years. It also charges this Congress to come up with an additional $1.5 trillion in savings by Christmas. Tonight, I’m asking you to increase that amount so that it covers the full cost of the American Jobs Act. And a week from Monday, I’ll be releasing a more ambitious deficit plan – a plan that will not only cover the cost of this jobs bill, but stabilize our debt in the long run. This approach is basically the one I’ve been advocating for months.
That's right, Obama punted the heavy lifting to the super-committee, and pledged to introduce another general deficit plan in twelve days. How, or if, this will differ from his unanimously-defeated February budget, or his dreadful April deficit speech, is anybody's guess. He does give us a big clue, though: It's "basically the [same ideas] I've been advocating for months." This likely means very modest changes to unsustainable entitlement programs and big tax hikes on "the rich." Absolutely nothing new. In short, Obama insisted on a nationally-televised joint session address to describe an old plan which will be funded by a plan he'll explain later. What a joke. Even the AP is sounding dubious.
Two quick examples that illustrate why this entire spectacle was a sham:
(1) Obama lamented teacher layoffs: "While they’re adding teachers in places like South Korea, we’re laying them off in droves. It’s unfair to our kids. It undermines their future and ours. And it has to stop. Pass this jobs bill, and put our teachers back in the classroom where they belong." But later in the speech, he went out of his way to condemn budget fixes like Wisconsin's, which limited collective bargaining "rights" for government employees, but has saved thousands of teachers' jobs.
(2) The president demanded swift action on three pending trade agreements, heavily implying that Congress has been dragging its feet on these items: "Now it’s time to clear the way for a series of trade agreements that would make it easier for American companies to sell their products in Panama, Colombia, and South Korea..." But the reason these agreements have stalled is because he refuses to send them to Congress unless Republicans agree to lard them up with special goodies for labor unions.
Liberals on MSNBC and Twitter seem to be energized by Obama's aggressive performance. They think this was just what the doctor ordered, and that Republicans have been put on notice, or something. This is unremarkable in every sense of the word. Liberals? Excited by a passionate, but ultimately unserious, Obama campaign speech? Color me stunned. Republicans should help pass the acceptable and benign features of this plan, insist that it's all really paid for (without raising taxes in a recession), and resist its worst elements. If President Obama plans to convince Americans that the economy sucks because the GOP wouldn't go along with every last piece of his re-run stimulus, let him try. "You should pass it. And I intend to take that message to every corner of this country." Go for it, champ.
Parting thought: Should we "pass this jobs bill"?
UPDATE - Yuval Levin summarizes:
Spend $450 billion dollars now, it will create jobs, and I’ll tell you how I’m going to pay for it a week from Monday. If you disagree, you want to expose kids to mercury.