The other afternoon President Barack Obama gave what the White House described as a "major speech." When political aides describe their boss's forthcoming perorations as "major," they almost always are speaking in hope rather than in reality. By employing the five-letter intensifier, they are saying to press and public: Please pay attention to this one.
This one, in truth, deserved some attention. The president is seeking to change the conversation, away from what he called "short-term thinking" and "the same old stale debates." Six times he invoked the word "bargain," suggesting that his new bargain was a riff off the New Deal.
White House aides did more than portray the president's speech as major. They said it was the opening to a symphony in six movements -- my metaphor, not theirs, though they might have done well to describe it in that manner rather than the way they did, which was to say it was part of a campaign-style effort by the president.
That may have been a major (that word again) tactical mistake -- voters are turned off by a president on a campaign, particularly when he has just won re-election and especially when he's in his second term and shouldn't be running for anything.
But that wasn't the only misstep. The White House also made it as clear as a July afternoon that there wouldn't be much new in these speeches, no new political initiatives, no new economic proposals, which is not exactly the way to build anticipation, or an audience. The nation in its midsummer reverie was not shaken by its sunburned shoulders to come in from a softball game to listen to the president say not much new for the first of six occasions of not saying anything different.
This political initiative, disparaged and dismissed bitterly by Obama's Republican rivals, comes at a difficult passage for the president. He cried wolf over the sequester, blaming Republicans for setting off a new crisis, when in fact most of the country has carried on pretty well during the sequester, though in part because so few pay attention to the troubles of those terrorized by the wolves, particularly if they are poor and virtually voiceless.
Besides, the sequester, which he excoriated in his speech on Wednesday, can fairly be laid as much at his door as at the Republicans'. (The sequester grew out of a scheme conceived in the White House as a threat so odious that no one could possibly embrace it, a strategy that backfired terribly. It was passed by Congress -- where one house is controlled by the Democrats -- and signed by the president.)
Obama, whose policies and priorities are being undermined systematically in obscure corners of Capitol Hill, is registering poll ratings that aren't exactly robust. The latest Marist Institute survey puts Obama's approval rating at its lowest in nearly two years, 41 percent, a drop of nine points since April. Only 37 percent said they approved of the president's economic performance.
The president's remarks Wednesday came at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., site of one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates but not a natural location for a major address. Obama has made scant use of the Oval Office, which his predecessors sometimes used for major addresses. Ronald Reagan spoke there 16 times (including his memorable remarks on the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle), Obama only twice.
One truth of our time is that presidential speeches aren't what they used to be -- not what they were in the FDR or Reagan years. And presidential campaign-style efforts in non-campaign years have not fared especially well.
The most famous was Andrew Johnson's 1866 excursion, a.k.a. the "swing around the circle," his (failed) effort to build support for his Reconstruction plans in the face of furious opposition from Radical Republicans. "Even his partisans were mortified," wrote Eric Foner, the distinguished historian of the period, who quoted the Journal of Commerce as characterizing the swing as "thoroughly reprehensible."
Another famous presidential campaign-style tour was undertaken by Woodrow Wilson, who sought to go over the head of a recalcitrant Senate to win support for his League of Nations and for American approval of the Treaty of Versailles after World War I.
"He had always enjoyed campaigning," John Milton Cooper Jr. wrote in his recent biography of Wilson, "and he believed that a democratic leader -- like the mythical figure Antaeus, who renewed his strength through contact with the Earth -- renewed his strength through contact with his people."
For a long while it seemed to work, the president attracting huge crowds: 12,000 in Oakland, 30,000 in San Diego, 200,000 in Los Angeles, enough to lead commentators to believe this swing had swung public opinion. But it wasn't public opinion that mattered; it was the Senate, where Henry Cabot Lodge stood athwart the measure.
Wilson collapsed in Pueblo, Colo., suffering a debilitating stroke that in effect ended his presidency and doomed his drive for the League. The president was rendered an invalid for the remainder of his term, a sad and shocking coda to a brilliant career as academic, reformer, wartime president and peacetime visionary.
The public is increasingly pessimistic about Obama's prospects for the remainder of his term; last week's Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll showed more than a third of Americans expressing that pessimism, exactly double the rate of the public who expressed optimism -- a chilling sign for the White House. But Obama possesses an advantage his predecessors lacked -- a public that has even less patience for the Congress than for the president. The legislative branch's disapproval rate, according to the same poll, is an astonishing 83 percent, as opposed to only 12 percent who express approval for congressional performance.
So this summer is developing into a terrible season, as bad in its way as winter was. A struggling president has begun a campaign-style offensive with no campaign in sight against a discredited Congress still 15 months away from its own midterm elections. The word from the public, however, is clear: Heal thyselves. We're not going to help.