A speech before a Joint Session of Congress, like the one President Obama will give on Thursday, is a huge deal. Sometimes, as after 9/11, it is a command performance, when the American people expect to hear from their president after a major shock. But when the president asks both for our attention and for that particular stage, he’d better live up to it.
If President Obama offers a laundry-list of minor job proposals, if the speech is not both instructive as to why we are in trouble and inspiring as to how we will triumph, he will be dwarfed by his setting and appear small and foolish, as unworthy of his office.
This is a truly awful moment to be president. President Bush had the brilliant idea of cutting taxes while adding a new health care entitlement, the prescription drug part of Medicare, and fighting two wars. Warnings about a Wall Street that had become Las Vegas with more tasteful decor, about an unregulated “shadow economy” of derivatives, were ignored. The financial crisis we suffered is different from a generic recession, and takes much longer to recover from, especially with respect to job creation.
But there are larger forces at work here, aside from the domestic mess President Obama inherited. Americans prospered because much of the rest of the world consisted of illiterate peasants. Today, India and China are filled with young people who know math and science and know them better than many of our young people. We prospered because we educated more of our people than other developed countries. We didn’t force the bulk of our young people off the college track at a tender age, the way they did in Europe.
Our prosperity was based on our people, our unique American combination of a willingness to work hard and limitless opportunity for those who did. Today, all over the world, other people are competing effectively with us. President Obama needs to explain how these people, this rising global middle class, can become our customers rather than our competitors.
We have gone from an agricultural economy to a manufacturing economy to a service economy. Where do we go now? We are ready to hop in our covered wagons, metaphorically speaking, and go on to the next frontier. But what is it, where is it, and how do we get there?
Ten years after 9/11, the president does not have to deal with our towers falling literally. But they are falling figuratively. We really need a national unity government to address the big picture of our current crisis and our uncertain future. But a Republican Party obsessed with kicking President Obama out of the Oval Office will never sit down with him in that office to listen to experts and govern accordingly. They aren’t interested in wisdom, only in winning, which is a loss for the American people, especially our unemployed.