If the United States were a country with a well-functioning political media, I doubt President Obama would’ve had to give the speech he gave Wednesday on the economy and the middle class. After all, in a country where a clear majority of people consider themselves middle or upper-middle class, you’d expect issues pertaining to the middle class to be front-and-center, especially during times of economic strife. You wouldn’t need the president and his staff to manufacture a “big speech” to draw attention to the issue. You’d see the president responding to an ongoing conversation — not trying to start one himself.
But for many reasons — not least among them inequality and class segregation —we don’t have that kind of media. So Obama gave his speech. And it was, as far as Obama speeches go, OK. The substance was in many ways a retelling of the narrative he first unveiled last year in Kansas, the story of inequality and the dying middle class. There were some new flourishes, including a harder partisan bite (“a faction of Republicans in the House” don’t come off particularly well). But the speech wasn’t an attempt to break new ground, and it wasn’t billed as such.
In fact, it’s something of a mistaken approach to view this speech as a one-off. By all accounts it’s more of an opening volley of what will be an eight-week, campaign-style effort by the White House to divert the media’s focus onto the issues Obama wants to talk about. Keeping in mind that Obama is already thisclose to being something of a lame duck — and that no major legislation, besides maybe immigration reform, will be able to pass both the House and the Senate — I think E.J. Dionne has the best sense of what the president is trying to do:
Presidents are judged not only by the things they do but also by how successful they are in influencing the actions of the presidents who follow.
Leaders who want their achievements to endure know that their task includes changing the terms of the national debate and leaving behind an intellectual legacy that shapes how future generations see the country and its possibilities.
If the Democratic primary for 2016 is an extended debate on how best to combat inequality, then Obama’s speech will have done its job. Even if the media hasn’t.