Tonight’s state of the union speech will be the least important of President Barack Obama's political career. No doubt it will be a dazzling performance, as the president pivots from pugilistic to professorial, from left to right. We know the president comes through with the rhetoric in the clutch. But the true test of his presidency is no longer what he says he will do or how he says it.
The test is whether Obama and his team wage a credible and effective fight for financial reform and economy recovery for Main Street, with the same vigor and urgency they threw into the Wall Street bailout. That will take more than a speech or even a series of speeches. It will take a real self-critical assessment of the president's strategy up til now and a tough, savvy and sustained political battle plan in the face of significant obstacles.
Both have been lacking in the president's approach so far. That’s the real pivot he needs to make now, and it has only partly to do with oratorical skills.
Obama’s credibility is suffering because he and his team keep suggesting that they have overseen a recovery that most people aren’t enjoying. They helped engineer a bailout that they say was absolutely necessary that helped the financial sector but left out the rest of us. Obama and his team don’t have credibility because they’re working Capitol Hill as hard as they can, not to create jobs for millions of out of work Americans, but to save the job of one of the few Americans who could have helped forestall both the financial crisis and the Wall Street –friendly bailout but didn’t, Ben Bernanke, head of the Federal Reserve.
Sen. Tom Harkin summed up what many people are feeling in reacting to comments from Tim Geithner, Obama’s treasury secretary who had warned that the stock market would tumble if Bernanke were not confirmed.
Geithner was just acting as a messenger boy for Wall Street, Harkin suggested. “How long will our economic policy be held hostage to Wall Street who threaten us that there’ll be total collapse if we don’t do everything they want? Wall Street wants Bernanke,” Harkin said. “They’re sending all these signals there’ll be this total collapse if he’s not approved. You know, I’m tired of being held hostage by Wall Street.”
Wall Street doesn’t like key planks of the president’s financial reform plan, like the Consumer Financial Protection Agency and his recently announced plan to separate some of the largest bank’s risky business from its more traditional functions. The Senate’s banking committee chair, Christopher Dodd has signaled he’s ready to surrender on the consumer protection agency. Will the president announce tonight how he and his team plan to win that fight when congressional leaders are giving up? Or will the president treat the consumer protection agency and bank size as just details that should be left up to Congress, as he did in the battle over crucial aspects of health care reform?
A different kind of hostage crisis helped bring down a previous Democratic president. All Jimmy Carter had to grapple with were a bunch of Iranian revolutionaries holding 53 Americans in an embassy in Tehran. President Obama’s challenge is much tougher – 250 million people and our entire political process held hostage by some of the world’s wealthiest corporations and individuals. Carter’s hands were tied. Are Obama’s?