Walter Shapiro: Obama’s Failed Fireside Chat
Last July 25, on his 916th day in the White House, Barack Obama finally delivered a formal Oval Office address on the issue that will define his presidency—the economy. Obama’s words that night were devoid of Clinton-esque empathy over the plight of the unemployed and Roosevelt-ian attacks on Wall Street power brokers. Instead, playing to the sensible center in the debt-ceiling fight, Obama called for “a balanced approach to reducing the deficit” and urged viewers to send the message to Congress that “we can solve this problem through compromise.” For a president elected because of his eloquence, Obama summoned up all the poetry of the collected workout routines of George W. Bush.
The point is not to re-argue the wisdom of Obama’s ever-shifting strategy in the debt-ceiling fight or to retroactively reward the Republicans for their dangerous intransigence. Rather, the goal is to highlight one of the central mysteries of Obama’s presidency: Why has his rhetoric about the troubled economy been so consistently turgid? Much of the Oval Office address sounded like it was written by a focus group. At times of trouble, there is nothing so stirring as a president calling for a “balanced approach” and raising the dread specter of “kicking the can further down the road.”
A single off-key speech does not jeopardize a presidency. But Obama resisted an Oval Office address on the economy during all the dark days of double-digit unemployment, preferring speeches to Congress punctuated by partisan cheering sections and prime-time press conferences punctuated by preening reporters. The problem was that neither forum allowed Obama to make a sustained economic argument rather than simply offering applause lines or jousting with journalists. As a result, Obama has never been able to convince voters that increasing the deficit during hard times hastens the speed of an economy recovery. Small wonder Obama is heading into his reelection campaign with Republicans believing that he is a European-style socialist and too many Democrats worrying that he is a trimmer with no more inner convictions than Mitt Romney.
To revive an old joke: On July 25, 2011, Barack Obama gave a fireside address—and the fire went out.
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