Obama's Speech Was Good. Did Anyone Hear It?

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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President Barack Obama's economic speech today was powerful and well-crafted, even if it was a little long.

The main problem was that it seemed to convey mixed messages that will complicate his efforts to set the political predicate for the high stakes and bitter budget and debt ceiling battles with congressional Republicans he is sure to face this fall.

The Galesburg, Illinois, address was the first glimpse of what the president sees as his chance to frame the parameters of his argument, which emphasizes the middle class. As he made clear in the speech, the messaging over the next few months will focus on infrastructure, manufacturing, jobs and skills, and the spiraling costs of higher education.

This afternoon, he drew the political and policy lines very effectively. And any Republican rebuttal will probably duck most of his challenges.

This speech, though, wasn't supposed to be a State of the Union-like laundry list of ideas. Instead, it was intended to resemble an early economic speech he made as a senator eight years ago that he also delivered at Knox College. Today's speech lasted more than an hour -- longer than his last State of the Union speech and more than twice as long as his 24-minute address on Knox's campus in 2005.

And by now the president should know that it's a slog to really change the debate and public opinion. Obama spoke of an improving economy and of continuing economic travails. Both the opportunity and the challenge are true, but it's difficult to sustain that double theme: Is the economy in good shape or is it struggling?

He also, perhaps out of necessity, pulled some punches. We know Obama believes the Republicans' emphasis on deficit reduction is misplaced, even counter-productive. He danced around taking them on directly. Likewise, the distinction he drew between the tear-the-house-down Republicans in the House and the smaller bloc of compromise-centric Republicans in the Senate may not be so clear cut for the public.

Most of all, major presidential speeches don't command the same attention as they did years ago. The messages are usually ephemeral in the 24-7 political media age. Speeches also tend to be lost in the summer, when the public is usually paying less attention.

A plethora of foreign policy and other controversies also may distract from today's speech. For example: The view that former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers is emerging as Obama's top choice to replace Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. That would surely set off an acrimonious confirmation fight with all congressional Republicans.

The president may have scored a major advantage today, however, with his challenge to Republicans to not just oppose but to produce alternative ideas. Judging by the dozens of times the Republican-controlled House has voted to repeal the Affordable Health Care Act without any replacement, these ideas generally are lacking.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Albert R Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net