The other afternoon President Barack Obama gave what the White House described as a “major speech.” When political aides describe their boss’s forthcoming perorations as “major,” they almost always are speaking in hope rather than in reality. By employing the five-letter intensifier, they are saying to press and public: Please pay attention to this one.
This one, in truth, deserved some attention. The president is seeking to change the conversation, away from what he called “short-term thinking” and “the same old stale debates.” Six times he invoked the word “bargain,” suggesting that his new bargain was a riff off the New Deal.
White House aides did more than portray the president’s speech as major. They said it was the opening to a symphony in six movements — my metaphor, not theirs, though they might have done well to describe it in that manner rather than the way they did, which was to say it was part of a campaign-style effort by the president.
That may have been a major (that word again) tactical mistake — voters are turned off by a president on a campaign, particularly when he has just won re-election and especially when he’s in his second term and shouldn’t be running for anything.
But that wasn’t the only misstep. The White House also made it as clear as a July afternoon that there wouldn’t be much new in these speeches, no new political initiatives, no new economic proposals, which is not exactly the way to build anticipation, or an audience. The nation in its midsummer reverie was not shaken by its sunburned shoulders to come in from a softball game to listen to the president say not much new for the first of six occasions of not saying anything different.