Once again, a president of the United States strode across a flattop and approached the microphones with unmistakable confidence. But this time the president was not walking across an aircraft carrier at sea, just a campus lecture hall stage in Washington.
And you can be sure there was no banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished" — but if a streamer had been unfurled overhead, it no doubt would have been cautiously proclaiming "Glimmers of Hope." For Tuesday morning’s event at Georgetown University’s Gaston Hall was not about America’s commander-in-chief celebrating progress in war. It was America’s professor-in-chief, lecturing on what caused the economic collapse he inherited. Indeed, he mounted an academic defense of the actions he took in his 12 weeks as president.
As presidential speeches go — especially when there are encouraging signs of success can be trumpeted — this was a most unusual address. President Obama downplayed the optimistic signs, mentioning them, but quickly moving on to his goal of instructing us in his course, Recessions 101. For most of what his staff billed as a major address, Obama spoke in a measured style that was more pedantic than polemic.
After noting, "we have responded to an extraordinary set of economic challenges with extraordinary action — action that has been unprecedented in both its scale and its speed," Obama said that in this speech he wanted to "step back" and explain what had happened. And he did.
He explained why this recession was different from all others: "It was caused by a perfect storm of irresponsibility and poor decision-making that stretched from Wall Street to Washington to Main Street." He explained the economics of how the housing bubble was recklessly inflated and why it burst.
"Everybody was making record profits — except the wealth created was real only on paper," Obama said. "And as the bubble grew, there was almost no accountability or oversight from anyone in Washington."
He answered critics’ charges of "irresponsible government spending" by saying: "To begin with, economists on both the left and right agree that the last thing a government should do in the middle of a recession is to cut back on spending." To citizens asking, "Where’s our bailout?" he said that each dollar invested in a bank should lead to eight or ten dollars of loans to ordinary people.
Obama said, "for the very first time, we are beginning to see glimmers of hope." Banks are lending again. Schools, police and companies cancelled planned layoffs.
Obama laid out the challenges that Washington must meet:
Reform its "outdated rules …for Wall Street to ensure that we never find ourselves here again." Build an education system that finally prepares our workers for a 21st century economy. Harness renewable energy that can create jobs — an area where other nations have succeeded but America so far has not. Control skyrocketing health care costs.
Then the professor-in-chief’s lecture ended — and our nation’s leader took command. Just in time to issue a challenge to Official Washington.
Obama said Washington must finally have the guts to reform the entitlement programs — Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security — the ones that have sent politicians cowering for decades. Uncontrolled entitlement program costs "will only get worse as Baby Boomers age, and will in fact lead us down an unsustainable path."
Now he was speaking not rally to his lecture hall audience but to Washington’s politicians who weren’t there. They are the ones who think of Georgetown not as a university but as a series of salons along the cocktail circuit. Now Obama sought to summon the best within a capital too used to giving less. His message: Washington can no longer be satisfied with halfway measures and must no longer be diverted by its own demagoguery.
"…We have been called to govern in extraordinary times," Obama said. "And that requires an extraordinary sense of responsibility — to ourselves, to the men and women who sent us here, and to the many generations whose lives will be affected for good or for ill because of what we do here."
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)