I didn’t watch the president’s address live last night, but before reading it I did take a look at the insta-reaction, and there was a stunning lack of intensity in the response to it. It had become clear in the two hours before he spoke that he himself had no particular proposal to push or goal in mind for the speech. Or rather, there were far too many goals—to blame the GOP, to talk about his desire to raise taxes on wealthy Americans even though that appears to be off the table even in the Democratic plan being pushed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid he said he supported, to separate himself from a Washington growing increasingly toxic in the eyes of voters, and to offer a genuine warning to the public of the consequences of a default. It didn’t succeed—in its own terms—in making a strong case for any of these points individually, and collectively they don’t hang together.
It wasn’t just a bad speech. It was a glaringly ineffectual speech. And it adds to a growing impression of the Obama White House that threatens the president’s reelection chances now more than anything else: The impression that he simply doesn’t know what he’s doing. The damage done to him and his party by his ideological overreach was done in 2010; now he is going to be judged on the practical results of his presidential policies. Right now, with economic growth slowing and unemployment actually rising and no serious proposals or plans on the table to help speed up job growth, that’s not looking too good for him. And one gets the sense that, in response, he and his team are improvising wildly, looking for political advantage. The problem with political improvisation is that it only works well when your instincts on how to sell the public on what you’re pitching are sound.
It is not a sound strategy for a president to deliver a speech bemoaning the chaos in the Washington over which he presides; such a speech is practically an open admission of impotence. Even people who believe every word he says about everything being the fault of the GOP can hardly think he’s come up with a message on the debt ceiling that has changed the course of the debate in his favor. Democrats have great cause for worry if this is the way he handles things in 2012.