What to Watch for in Obama’s Economic Speeches

Billed by the White House as expressions of his “one clear economic philosophy” President Obama is delivering big speeches on the economy Wednesday in Galesburg, Illinois, and Warrensburg, Missouri. Obama will reiterate his long-standing message that “the American economy works best when it grows from the middle-out, not the top down” and will cover old and new territory, according to the White House — and a presidential preview he gave to his Organizing for America group on Monday night. Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer, who popularized of the middle-out formulation the presidenthas been using for the last couple of years, expand on what they see as the power of their way of framing economic thinking here. But asWashington Post columnist Dana Milbank asked, “How can the president make news, and remake the agenda, by delivering the samemessage he gave in 2005?”

Here are some economic topics the president could address that might make people wake up:

1. Detroit. Can the president talk about America’s economy and the future of the nation without talking about the largest municipal bankruptcy ever? It hardly seems possible. The failure of any major American city is a blight on the spirit of the nation, and Detroit holds a special place in the American imagination because of its historic role in the auto industry, as well as the way it was held up as an example of a city saved by the successful auto bailout early in Obama’s first term. Are there any creative national means of helping Detroit out with its problems? Is there nothing people elsewhere can do? What role is there for the federal government in helping to relieve the city of its crippling pension obligations? And what can we learn from the city’s example about how government needs to adapt for the 21st-century economy?

2. Obamacare. The president spoke about Obamacare’s widely shared rebate provisions last week. And yet as the law gets closer to the heavy-duty implementation phase, it’s increasingly perceived as one more program for the low-income and minorities. And to the extent that it is — as it should be, because it’s trying to cover the uninsured, who are disproportionately low-income and minorities — it may suffer the fate of all programs that mainly assist the low-income and minorities, which is to be valued without being broadly appreciated. Can Obama make a case for how his signature law will help the middle class, from within a middle-class framework? A new United Technologies-National Journal poll found that “just 36 percent of those surveyed say the law will ‘make things better’ for the middle class, while 49 percent say they expect it will ‘make things worse.'” What is the middle-class case for backing Obamacare for those who are already insured, beyond a one-time rebate from some insurers and helping others?

3. Green-economy jobs. Obama gave a major speech on climate changeat Georgetown University last month, and he made green jobs and the green economy a big part of his first term effort to reorient the economy for the future. For Obama, the economy and the climate have always been connected. How’s that going?

4. Continued housing-market stagnation. The housing market continues to be a major drag on mobility and the economy, even as it has picked up quite a bit of steam. How does this fit into Obama’s vision for change? Will he get into the nitty-gritty of housing policy or are we going to get mainly big-picture philosophy?

5. Role of government. One of the most interesting parts of the Liu-Hanauer argument is its willingness to be deeply critical of government’s worst tendencies. For liberals, there’s been an unfortunate side effect of the decades-long fight with conservatives to preserve government programs: They don’t talk so much about the obvious harm to persons done by bad or ineffective and costly government programs, and too many have started defending government as if it is a good unto itself. Liu and Hanauer do not do that, and their critique of what government does wrong is a big part of their argument for using government wisely to build the middle-out economy. What programs is Obama willing to criticize? Sometimes it’s seemed as if the major task of his second term is going to be cracking down on the federal bureaucracy, from the IRS to the Department of Justice to the State Department’s diplomatic-security divisions. Restoring trust in government goes hand-in-hand with using it for new ends. What will the president say on that front?


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