Man walks into a column, no.36: Jobs

No, not a(nother) paean to the iPhone or iPad in memory of Apple’s departing chief exec, but the latest instalment in At Times Like This I Wish I Was American, as President Bartlett – sorry, Obama – gives a state of the nation speech to a nation in a pretty terrible state.

With Labor Day behind us (them) and the campaigning for 2012 entering the phase when (some) Americans actually pay (some) attention, consider this a starting pistol post, in the hope that we can maintain a healthy amount of gazing across the Atlantic on arbitrary constant as the election itself draws nearer.

If you haven’t already and have a half hour to spare you really could do worse than spending it watching the full thing. Not as soaring as others in the Obama Canon, maybe, but impressively direct and well-crafted and, it almost goes without saying, delivered with style. The tone and content can be well summed up with this excerpt:

The people of this country work hard to meet their responsibilities. The question tonight is whether we’ll meet ours. The question is whether, in the face of an ongoing national crisis, we can stop the political circus and actually do something to help the economy; whether we can restore some of the fairness and security that has defined this nation since our beginning.

Throughout Obama expertly married the local and the global, the everyday and the political. Held together by the ringing refrain, repeated time and again, of ‘pass this jobs bill’. The most profound passage though, for me, was when the President addressed head-on the inherent and to many the fascinating duality at the heart of the American psyche. In response to the GOP creed that government should just ‘get out of the way’, Obama said:

Yes, we are rugged individualists. Yes, we are strong and self-reliant. And it has been the drive and initiative of our workers and entrepreneurs that has made this economy the engine and envy of the world. But there has always been another thread running throughout our history – a belief that we are all connected; and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation.

Because when Americans say they want to be left alone to get on with it, they don’t mean really left alone, they mean ‘left to do the kind of things I want to do with my kind of people‘. I was reminded of the studies quoted in David Brooks’ The Social Animal which appear to show that in the States (especially) people choose party affiliation based on views handed down by their parents, or early in adulthood based on stereotypes of what ‘Democrats’ and ‘Republicans’ are like, and then stick with whichever camp they think is most similar to them. Policy choices barely figure.

Then, party affiliation becomes the independent variable, shaping views on key issues (survey data suggests that, for example, people become Republicans first and then place increasing value on limited government, rather than the other way around) and – crucially in the current context – shaping perceptions of reality. Whether, for instance, in the case of one study, inflation had risen or fallen.

And that’s the point: however good this speech was, its substantive effect on the minds of voters is likely to be limited, making Democrats happier and Republicans angrier. Independents will continue to wait and see whether the economy picks up. The chances of a fillip within the next twelve months or so are limited when so many households and businesses are still continuing to pay down pre-crisis debt.

Anyway, with GOP members of congress in deeply intransigent mood, Obama’s Administration has little chance of getting his proposals through, so whether they’ll work or not is largely academic. What the President achieved, though, in using any president’s most potent weapon – the bully pulpit – to good effect, was to lay down the gauntlet, allowing him to credibly place the blame at the door of Congress when things don’t get better. Risky strategy, but the only one realistically open to him at this time of US decline.

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