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09.09.11

Obama’s Missing Economic Narrative

The president outlined a jobs bill that might work, but by not talking about the causes of the economic crisis and why it’s lasted so long, he ceded the story to the GOP, says Peter Beinart.

Over the next 14 months, Barack Obama may well save his presidency. But he didn’t begin that effort tonight. Obama outlined a jobs bill. It may be a good one. What he didn’t outline was a story that connects that jobs bill to the economic crisis we’ve been facing for almost three years.

Obama laid out a solution, but he didn’t define the problem: He didn’t talk about the causes of the economic crisis, and the reason it has lasted so long. He also didn’t talk much about his past efforts at stimulating the economy.

Explaining why nothing he’s done in his first two-and-a-half years in office has brought back economic growth may be politically tricky. By ignoring it, however, he cedes the narrative to the Republicans. The GOP’s story, of course, is that Obama’s past efforts to throw money at the economy have failed and so this will as well. Obama needed to respond to that tonight, to explain why his past economic policies merit confidence in his new ones. But he didn’t. And so a casual viewer might come away with the impression that he believes his first stimulus bill failed too.

Americans want Obama to help create jobs, of course. But they also want him to explain why joblessness is so high and so persistent. They want to know why this downturn is worse than downturns in the past. They want someone to show how forces in the world influence the struggles in their lives.

Obama didn’t do that tonight. Instead, he offered medicine without really diagnosing the problem.

Obama offered medicine without really diagnosing the problem.

Bill Clinton was good at this kind of storytelling. Again and again, he said that globalization was making life more insecure for ordinary Americans, and that while Republicans wanted to leave them to fend for themselves, he was deploying government so they would not face this frightening new world alone. Obama needs to update that story—not only to take account of China and India’s rise, but to explain why how an inattentive, feckless government let Wall Street drive the economy off a cliff and leave Americans even more vulnerable to globalization’s threats than before.

He didn’t do that tonight. And every month that goes by without a Democratic narrative of the great recession is a month where the Republican one takes hold more strongly.