We have a president who loves to give campaign speeches to adoring crowds, but who doesn’t seem to have much interest in governing.
That was apparent Wednesday, when Barack Obama delivered the first of several promised “pivot to the economy” speeches at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., where he spoke eight years ago as a newly elected U.S. senator.
The hour-long speech started off with some characteristic self-referencing — he didn’t have gray hair then, he noted, or a motorcade — and ended with a quotation from Galesburg native Carl Sandburg.
But in between there was not much in the way of serious public policy. Nothing much that seems likely to speed up the nation’s sluggish economic growth or to increase the lowest-in-three-decades labor force participation.
Obama called for increasing the minimum wage. That always tests well in polls. But in real life it tends not to create but to destroy jobs, especially for young people with few skills and little work experience.
He also called for job retraining, a Community College to Career Initiative. Unfortunately, studies have shown for years that government job training programs aren’t very effective.
In the meantime, the administration and congressional Democrats have been launching attacks on for-profit higher education firms, many of which do a better job of equipping young people for the job market.
Obama mentioned in passing his administration’s efforts to connect 99 percent of students to high-speed Internet. But it’s not a lack of connectivity that is holding the economy back.
The president said more about his proposal for universal pre-school education. But the administration’s own studies have shown that the four-decades-old Head Start program produces little in the way of lasting educational gains.
This looks more like an expensive attempt to create more jobs for teacher union members — and more union-dues money to help elect Democratic politicians — than a serious attempt to stimulate the economy.
Amazingly, Obama called for more money to create jobs in wind and solar energy. No mention was made of the hundreds of millions in loan guarantees lavished on the now bankrupt Solyndra and A123 Systems.
To that list he added natural gas. But the boom in natural gas has occurred more despite, not because of administration policies.
More serious perhaps was his call for more investment in infrastructure, and for once Obama did not tout his ludicrously expensive plans for high-speed passenger rail — a technology half a century old and liable to be rendered obsolete by self-driving cars.
But neither his administration nor Congress has been able to come up with financing to supplement the gasoline tax, which no longer provides sufficient revenue for road-building.
Obama noted that Atlantic ports are not prepared to handle the supertankers that will be coming through the widened Panama Canal in 2015. What has his administration been doing about that?
Infrastructure was not the only policy on which the president provided slogans rather than specifics. He called for expansion of tax-free savings programs as part of tax reform. But has the administration made any serious effort to engage with the tax-writing committee chairmen on the subject?
Similarly, he decried high earners’ “generous tax incentives to save” — whatever those may be. But any hope of increasing revenues from high earners depends on a Democratic takeover of the House next year.
Obama called for giving every homeowner a chance to refinance their mortgages, something that many have done, although administration programs to do so have helped far fewer than predicted.
And, ominously, he added, “I’m also acting on my own to cut red tape for responsible families who want to get a mortgage, but the bank says no.” But didn’t granting mortgages to non-creditworthy borrowers trigger the collapse of the housing market?
Inevitably, Obama talked about the Affordable Care Act and predicted gamely that people will be able to “comparison shop in an online marketplace, just like you would for TVs or plane tickets,” even as fellow Democrats are predicting a train wreck.
But Obamacare is, as recent polling suggests, an increasingly hard sell. Voters seem to have gotten the idea that it’s causing businesses not to hire or to cut back workers’ hours.
The problem Obama faces on this latest pivot to the economy is that most voters believe his policies have retarded rather than stimulated economic growth and job creation. This speech is not likely to change their minds.