Obama's can't-win speech trap

A laundry list of policy proposals won't survive GOP-induced gridlock. So what's he going to say?

Published September 6, 2012 8:31PM (EDT)

Ezra Klein boils down the consequences of the presidential election to its essential marrow. Never mind the fact that Republicans will be just as unwilling to compromise with Obama during a second term as they were during the first. The mere fact of reelection ensures that three big things are certain to happen. Healthcare reform becomes a reality, bank reform survives, and some kind of meaningful budget deal is inevitable, because whether Republicans like it or not, the Bush tax cuts are set to expire in January, and one way or another, the two sides will come to an agreement to prevent going over the "fiscal cliff."

Those would be humongous accomplishments, and it's possible that historians looking back could regard just those three achievements as ample evidence of a successful presidency. Unfortunately for Obama, the future judgment of history offers no help for the quandary he faces in his speech tonight. Everyone wants to know exactly what Obama plans to do in his second term, even if everyone also knows that as far as new policy initiatives are concerned, by far the most likely outcome of an Obama second term would be another four years of gridlock. And absolutely no one wants to hear, "reelect me, because if I can't get anything new through Congress, at least that stuff I started back in 2009 and 2010 will escape the guillotine."

It's a unique dilemma. Obama could spend his entire speech detailing a sheaf of job-creation proposals, infrastructure spending, and educational initiatives, none of which would have a chance in hell of getting past a Republican-controlled House, or he could note that just doing nothing at all would be a magnificent triumph. The first option is to present fantasy, while the second is a kind of positive nihilism. Doing nothing is victory; proposing action is futile!

Talk about your rhetorical challenges!

Of course, there are other reasons to choose a president besides the prospect of new legislation to solve pressing problems. Four more years of Obama means, most likely, at least one more Supreme Court justice and many more federal judge appointments. It means another four years in which the EPA and the Energy Department are run by people actually dedicated to protecting the environment and promoting clean, renewable energy production. And so on. But all of that is still playing defense, and it's very difficult to inspire people on a platform that says, vote for me, because I'll keep the Supreme Court from becoming even more conservative.

I don't envy Obama's task. Playing offense will be an exercise in make-believe, and playing defense will be to admit defeat. His job when he approaches the podium will be much harder than either Michelle Obama's or Bill Clinton's. He has to somehow tell us how the next four years won't look like the last two, when the most likely scenario is that we get more of the same. Intransigent opposition from this Republican Party is not his fault, but that truth isn't going to win him much sympathy from anyone who isn't already intending to vote for him.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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2012 Elections Barack Obama Budget Showdown Democratic National Convention