Obama’s Speech Is a Confession of Impotence

It took the president a long time to tell us he can't offer any solutions to the problems we face.

"What we need," President Barack Obama told a group in Galesburg, Illinois, today, "isn't a three-month plan, or even a three-year plan, but a long-term American strategy, based on steady, persistent effort, to reverse the forces that have conspired against the middle class for decades."

Inequality, layoffs, economic insecurity -- it's a conspiracy! Sounds sinister . . . and yet, in a way, oddly comforting. A conspiracy is something you can do something about: find the villains and slay them. On the other hand, titanic and impersonal forces like globalization and technological progress are harder to vanquish.

Unfortunately, there's no easy villain to be conquered, no easy fix to bring the middle class back to the glory days of the 1950s and 1960s. Inequality and economic insecurity are rising everywhere in the developed world, not just in America. This is not a matter of policy tweaks or bad, greedy people. It's a matter of seismic shifts in the global economy.

Nonetheless, in his speech, Obama claimed that he could do something about the ills facing us -- that he had a plan to bring back the bourgeois boom. But the strategies themselves were less than promising.

"The first cornerstone of a strong and growing middle class has to be an economy that generates more good jobs in durable, growing industries," the president told his audience. "Over the past four years, for the first time since the 1990s, the number of American manufacturing jobs hasn't gone down; they've gone up. But we can do more."

"So I'll push new initiatives to help more manufacturers bring more jobs back to America. We'll continue to focus on strategies to create good jobs in wind, solar, and natural gas that are lowering energy costs and dangerous carbon pollution. And I'll push to open more manufacturing innovation institutes that turn regions left behind by global competition into global centers of cutting-edge jobs."

Obama has been promising green jobs for years, and failing to deliver them for just as long. There's little evidence that more environmentally friendly energy sources will be net job creators. The middle class may enjoy bluer skies if we convert more of our power generation capacity to wind and solar. But we've no reason to think that they'll enjoy more green in their wallets.

The manufacturing innovation institute, meanwhile, is just another iteration of an idea that's been around for longer than Barack Obama has. Go to any Rust Belt city and you'll find research campuses, innovation institutes and similar institutions named after hopeful politicians who promised that a new manufacturing base would coalesce around this exciting agglomeration of creative minds. Unfortunately, in most instances it has turned out that manufacturing bases would rather coalesce around cheap land, low taxes and acres of uncongested freeway.

Besides, the problem in America is not that we suddenly lost our manufacturing mojo. In fact, we're still very good at it; according to the Boston Consulting Group, the inflation-adjusted value of our manufacturing output has more than doubled since 1972. But our manufacturing employment is down by one-third, because production is highly automated in most industries. Even small metalworking operations now use computer-aided design and robots as much as they do grizzled machinists.

The same problem besets other areas the president leaned hard on ... evergreen promises like better education and infrastructure. These are splendid ideas -- America's port and rail infrastructure badly needs updating, and a better-educated workforce is a worthy goal. But these things will not magically produce loads more manufacturing jobs, much less boost the income share of the middle class to 1970s levels. They will make the economy somewhat more efficient, we hope. But that efficiency, if it comes at all, will be decades away. And especially in the case of education, it may not come.

We have a very good idea of how to construct port architecture capable of receiving a supertanker. On the other hand, we are not very good at keeping inner city and rural kids from dropping out of high school. And the main policy lever that Obama has at his disposal -- pouring more money into the school system -- is not very well correlated with improved outcomes. In fact, we've been trying it for decades in our nation's worst schools, with not much to show for it.

"But what about early childhood education?", you ask. It's a better option than funneling more money into high schools, but I'm still not convinced it will scale. And although high-quality preschool can help improve outcomes for poor kids, it doesn't make them into world-class STEM workers; it somewhat reduces the likelihood that they will drop out of school or go to prison. Excellent goals, but not quite the same as restoring the lost middle class.

The president also wants to lower the cost of a college education by reforming the student loan system. Yet playing with the interest rate on student loans is not going to give much of a boost to the middle class when already 60 percent of college graduates are taking jobs that haven't traditionally required a college degree. Better educated waitresses may be a fine thing for America, but is it really bolstering our bourgeoisie?

The rest of the speech was similarly disappointing, a grab bag of things that people like the sound of -- more secure retirement, more secure health-care access, rebuilding communities. Obamacare is supposed to take care of one of these, though the implementation has gotten off to a rocky start. As for the rest, the president outlined no meaningful plan to achieve these noble goals, and probably for good reason: the president doesn't have much power to fix these things. In 2011, for example, he touted his administration's "Strong Cities, Strong Communities" initiative to reverse the social and economic decline in vulnerable cities. To give you an idea of how effective the whole thing was, one of the six cities selected for the program was Detroit.

If you listened closely, the speech seemed like a confession that the president knows he can't do much. The deep problems afflicting America -- social and economic breakdown in inner cities and rural areas; rising economic insecurity; widening gulfs between ideologies, regions, and socioeconomic classes -- are simply far beyond the president's reach.

But we don't like to feel like our president isn't even trying. And presumably, Obama hates to feel like a do-nothing. And so we get speeches that ultimately tell us what we already know: that we'd like to get to a better world. If we only knew how.

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