WASHINGTON — “I don’t normally do this,” President Obama’s senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer wrote in the subject line of an email blast to reporters Sunday night.
This was tantalizing. What would this top White House official be doing? Singing karaoke on the North Lawn? Getting a “POTUS” tattoo on his arm? Reality was rather more prosaic. Pfeiffer was announcing the rollout of a series of economic speeches Obama would begin on Wednesday — roughly the 10th time the White House has made such a pivot to refocus on jobs and growth. What would set this one apart is that Obama is reprising a speech he made eight years ago, when he first became a senator; Pfeiffer included a link to clips from that speech, set in part to mood music from the Canadian electronica group Kidstreet, the same music used in an Apple ad last year.
But even a reincarnated Steve Jobs would have trouble marketing this turkey: How can the president make news, and remake the agenda, by delivering the same message he gave in 2005? And in the same place — Galesburg, Ill. White House officials say this shows Obama’s consistency. “We plead guilty to the charge that there is a thematic continuity that exists between the speech the president will give in Galesburg, at Knox College … and his speech in Osawatomie (Kansas, in 2011) and his speech back at Knox College in 2005,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
Yes, but this also risks sending the signal that, just six months into his second term, Obama is fresh out of ideas. There’s little hope of getting Congress to act on major initiatives and little appetite in the White House to fight for bold new legislation that is likely to fail. And so the president, it seems, is going into reruns. In fairness, the 2005 speech was on the timeless theme of the need for education, training, regulations and tax changes to preserve the middle class. “The true test of the American ideal,” he said then, is “whether we build a community where, at the very least, everyone has a chance to work hard, get ahead and reach their dreams.”
That message was so good he repeated it in 2011 in Kansas, where he said, “This country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules.”
But while that message remains relevant, Obama is now facing a Republican opposition that, by House Speaker John Boehner’s own account, is measuring its success by how many laws it can undo. There’s no longer serious talk about a grand bargain that could reform entitlement programs and the tax code. Legislators and administration officials have little hope of doing more than short-term skirmishing over the debt ceiling and mindless spending cuts in the “sequester.”
If he’s to break through the resistance, Obama needs some bold new proposals. That’s why his speech returning to the oldies would seem to confirm that the White House has given up on big achievements. To build interest in the new series of speeches, the White House scheduled an invitation-only briefing (RSVP required) for Monday, then set cloak-and-dagger ground rules requiring that the briefers not be quoted, even anonymously. Reporters protested, but they needn’t have worried: The official who gave the briefing made clear that there would be no new policies announced, at least not major ones and not initially.
Pfeiffer told me Tuesday that the president, in his series of speeches, will eventually get around to ideas about “some things Congress could do, things they should do but probably won’t in the near term, and executive actions the president can take himself.”
I admire Pfeiffer’s pluck in trying to generate enthusiasm for what is largely a news-free initiative. And it’s smart politics for Obama to keep his emphasis on economic matters.
But it would be easier to rally enthusiasm if he gave supporters something big, bold and new to reach for, rather than leftover proposals coupled with lofty ideals.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post whose work appears Mondays and Fridays. Email him at danamilbank@wash post.com.