There are probably two areas of national policy that are largely impervious to rhetoric: economics and foreign affairs. Presidential speechmaking can affect these on the margins by temporarily influencing the feelings of the people, or the calculations of foreign potentates. Rhetoric works best when it complements and reinforces the policy being advocated (e.g., Reagan’s “tear down this wall” speech at the Brandenburg Gate).
But rhetoric on economics and foreign policy yields quickly to reality. It is on the basis of concrete actions and policies that allies are either attracted or estranged, enemies are either deterred or aroused, and an economy either recovers or sputters along in recession.
Obama at least should be given credit in one sense for political bravery. He made a lot of promises and predictions tonight, and tethered them to policies with his name on them. If the economy doesn’t get better — or if his administration does not rise to foreign challenges — he will face a difficult re-election campaign.