Whither hope? Last week I complained that Obama’s inaugural address was all spinach and no hope and that it lacked an over-arching narrative. His roll-out of the economic stimulus plan suffers from a similar problem. The words may have been poll tested, as Carrie Budoff Brown shows over at Politico, but they pointed in too many directions. And, the President who just last week told us that the future was not in his hands but in ours failed to tell us what we can do, how these proposals can or should affect us, or even to explain the problems with the moral force he used during the campaign.
Obama’s campaign was good because it stuck to a simple theme: America needed a change, and not just from the Bush years, but from the slash-and-burn politics of the past twenty years or, as the Joker might have put it if he were running for office: America needs a better class of politician. We needed politicians who would make us less cynical and more hopeful, who would empower the people to change the culture of Washington and Wall Street, who understood that the desire of the American people to provide for their children is a profoundly moral desire and it was being frustrated for middle class Americans for too long. Listening or watching the radio address Saturday, I searched in vain for the moral language we heard in October about the dignity of work and how we should value that work.
If the inaugural address was all spinach, this weekend’s radio address was goulash: Everything got thrown into the mix. We will rebuild schools. We will build 3,000 miles of modernized electric transmission lines. We will double our renewable energy generating capacity. We will computerize health records. We will improve roadways. It is a laundry list. Where was the narrative?
The most important thing about the plan is that it be stimulative, although this word did not "test" well with focus groups so it did not find its ways into the President’s remarks. Which is a shame. If Paul Krugman can explain the need to stimulate the economy on a Sunday talk show roundtable, so can the President. Nor did Obama link the current stimulative impact of his proposals to long-term investments where possible. For example, new education funding will help keep kids in school which will help the economy in the long-term, but it also keeps students out of the labor market, which helps the unemployment rate in the short term.
No projects are more stimulative than rail lines because they create a terminus where customers are concentrated. Think of all the small businesses inside and in the immediate vicinity of Grand Central Station in New York or the Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris that cater to the crowds the trains create. And, for all the abuse hurled at pork barrel projects, I imagine certain kinds of pork barrel projects are very stimulative, such as museums and historical sites.
Most distressing is the failure to understand how a large and tangible goal can serve to inspire the American people. I am sure it is a good thing that we will double our renewable-energy generating capacity in three years. But, I also don’t know what that looks like. I do know what a wind farm looks like and wish the President had said something like "We will build 1,000 wind farms in the next three years and link them to our rebuilt electrical grid so they can supply cities from Philadelphia to San Diego with renewable electricity." I also am waiting for the President to travel to Detroit and promise the American people that our factories there will be re-tooled to make fuel-efficient cars just as they were re-tooled at the start of World War II to make tanks.
Mario Cuomo is credited with saying, "You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose." There is undoubtedly much truth to the observation. But, the change from Obama the hope-filled candidate to Obama the spinach-serving, policy wonk President, is so sudden as to invite whiplash. Nor is it the change for which people voted in November.