When addressing Congress, as he has had to do more and more often of late, most recently when outlining the American Jobs Act, the President faces a curious challenge: to be both bold and commonsense, aggressive and uncontroversial. In order to appease his base and dispel the notion that he is a dithering, compromising leader, he needs to challenge Congress and bludgeon them with the bully pulpit. Yet, to garner the support of enough Americans to light a fire under the feet of House Republicans, he has to propose ideas so undeniably American that they could make apple pie look French.
Finding the appropriate tenor for his speech must have been a delicate task for the President indeed. He had to challenge Republicans to adopt policy in such a way that made it seem impossible to argue against him. When speaking to the American people, Obama relied not on new rhetoric, but on the same, often contradictory, rhetorical tropes that had tremendous success in the 20th century.
Remember those old commercials from the 90s where the “greatest” soft-rock power-ballads of all-time played in fifteen-second clips while the names of the songs scrolled down the screen? In a sense, the President’s speech, both rhetorically and in content, resembled one such greatest-hits album—for 20th century political movements, that is. He offered a policy proposal—or at least a piece of rhetoric—with roots in every major political era of the 20th century. Since his strategy was to be bold in tone yet centrist in content, he bolstered his proposal by hitching it, both implicitly and explicitly, to the successes of the past. And he did so with surprising thoroughness.
Take the realm of government regulation, for example. Obama attempted to harness the seemingly contradictory legacies of both the Progressive and Reagan eras. He promised simultaneously to “reject the idea that we must ask people to choose between their work and their safety” on the other to “have no more regulation than the health…and safety of the American People require.” The President was attempting to capitalize on Americans’ idealization of contradictory figures and policies, and it worked. He came across sounding unafraid to protect the worker, but not ideologically bound to big government. He was speaking to those independents who voted for Reagan but have since been left behind by the Republicans’ ideological orthodoxy.
In homage to Labor, he spoke of eschewing the notion that “we have to strip away collective bargaining rights to compete in the global economy,” yet he appealed to pro-business conservatism with talk of eliminating the so-called “red-tape” that constrains growth.
The President made it clear that he understands the unfaltering obsession with what we might call “producer-ism” that exists in the American psyche. When speaking of the economy of the future, he reached into our industrial past. He spoke of wanting to “see folks in South Korea driving Fords, Chevies, and Chryslers.” He assured us that “we can be the ones to build fuel efficient cars,” and that the “next generation of manufacturing [will take] root…right here.” It’s clear that he has more faith in the American people’s nostalgia than their trust in the future. Whether there’s any hope for our economy to reclaim the 21st century through industrial production is dubious at best, but Americans like to think so.
In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Class of 1904 and former Crimson president, promised that, as U.S. president, he would deliver “bold, persistent experimentation.” During the jobs speech, the President echoed this call, in assuring the public that “what’s guided us from the start…hasn’t been the search for a silver bullet; it’s been a commitment to keep trying.” In a time of deep economic hardship, President Obama recalled the ethos of the FDR, the president who, more than any other, established a personal connection and a trust with the American people. President Obama needs that trust, and he’s borrowing from FDR to find it.
Michael F. Cotter ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a history concentrator in Currier House.