These figures tell you where you have to go to get tax revenue and campaign donations. How does a politician raise $1 billion while advocating policies designed to fortify a sinking middle class? Obama is at a crossroads where the forces that have been tearing apart middle-class society—globalization and technological advance among them—have put the middle class in conflict with the donor base of both parties, which partly depends on those same forces for its prosperity.
Yet it is the currency of votes that will matter in 2012. Obama’s speech was addressed to “the other 90 percent,” and is likely to help his reelection chances if he can convince voters to overcome their cynicism both about the efficiency of government action and about his own abilities. We can expect that the right-wing, generally pro-Republican media like Fox News will continue to disparage the capacity of government to create jobs and improve lives by repairing American infrastructure, as Sean Hannity and Frank Luntz did after the speech. Republicans will inevitably issue their own plans for job creation and these may diminish the impact of Obama’s speech.
Even so, Obama has done the country a service by trying to move the center of debate from austerity to employment and investment. If the President, as he visits towns and cities, is as clear and bold as he was before the joint session of Congress, I suspect that his speech might lead to the renewed national self-confidence that must be a crucial component of any economic recovery. If he is to convince voters that he is able to govern, he will have to rely much less on compromise and much more on public willingness to confront the Republicans, who have shown no serious willingness to collaborate with him. We can hope that with his back against the economic wall he will continue to find the capacity for boldness we glimpsed in his speech. If he does not, we have a great deal to fear.
—September 15, 2011