Tonight, Barack Obama will deliver his fourth State of the Union address. (His first such speech, right after he took office in 2009, wasn't officially a State of the Union.) Surely, the president will pepper his speech with several references to individuals whose life circumstances will emphasize a particular political point he wishes to make. Some of those individuals will attend the speech in person, and be recognized in the gallery. Members of the House and Senate from the president's party will interrupt the speech every few sentences for standing ovations. The opposition party will offer a pomp-free rebuttal that will suffer by comparison.
These aspects of the State of the Union speech have become every bit as traditional as the speech itself. But thanks to President Obama, to those traditions we can add another: the annual pivot to jobs. Indeed, The Washington Post reported over the weekend that Obama would once again try to give the impression that his central policy focus is on job creation.
"President Obama will concentrate his State of the Union speech Tuesday on the economy, shifting the emphasis away from the broad social agenda of his second inaugural address to refocus attention on a set of problems that vexed his first term," wrote the Post's Scott Wilson. "Several senior administration officials involved in the speech say he will use his fourth State of the Union address to talk about jobs after the national unemployment rate ticked up last month."
If that sounds familiar, it should. With every State of the Union address, and with many other scheduled speeches from President Obama, the White House insists that he will return to the issues of jobs and the economy that worry Americans most. Each time, however, the focus promised by Obama ends up diverted back into the "broad social agenda" which most interests Obama.
This began early in Obama's first term. After passing the $800 billion-plus stimulus package in February 2009 on almost party-line votes, Obama couldn't wait to shift his attention to overhauling the nation's health-insurance industry. As jobs continued to bleed out of the economy, Obama diverted Congress into a lengthy battle over ObamaCare. By the time of his first official State of the Union speech in January 2010, the White House had been promising a "hard pivot" to jobs for over a month. Instead, the president focused on ObamaCare, and then moved to the overhaul of finance-industry regulation, which became known as Dodd-Frank.
After getting stung by the 2010 midterm loss of the House, the White House once again insisted that it would pivot back to the economy and jobs. Obama even announced the creation of a "Jobs Council" that included members of the business world who would help him focus on job creation and the economy. Once again, however, Obama shifted his focus to raising taxes on the wealthy and investor class, hardly the kind of activity that produces an explosion of job creation. By September 2011, riding the Occupy Movement's wave of progressive populism, Obama was fully engaged in class warfare — even as House Republicans passed more than a dozen jobs bills that the Democratic-controlled Senate ignored entirely.
In the 2012 election, after the State of the Union speech emphasized taxes and fairness more than job creation, Obama ignored the issue entirely. By June, he claimed that "the private sector is doing fine," and that the only employment crisis was the decline of government jobs. Instead of talking about job creation, Obama rode his "fairness" talk and demagoguery about a bogus "war on women" to victory in November.
Over the last three months since the election, the White House has tried to claim that Obama has refocused on job creation. In late November, Obama proposed a hiring subsidy that had been kicking around for a couple of years without success, and which would have little impact on hiring decisions. However, it quickly became clear that the second Obama term would have other priorities, such as climate change. In fact, Obama highlighted that issue in his inaugural speech, while only mentioning "jobs" three times, none of them in the context of prioritizing job creation. Obama included the word "economy" only once, and only to say that "a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce, schools and colleges to train our workers" — to provide a rationale for expanded government spending.
Finally, we can see what priority the Obama administration planned to give jobs in the second term by the disbanding of the president's "Jobs Council." It had only met four times, and there is no evidence that Obama even considered any advice it might have offered. Until the announcement of economic contraction in the fourth quarter that came in the same week, it was clear that Obama had no real interest in an agenda that prioritized economic growth over his progressive agenda.
After the Q4 GDP and January jobs reports, that has suddenly changed — at least for the record. National Journal's Ron Fournier wrote over the weekend that the White House felt "stung" by the very obvious analysis that Obama's inaugural address focused on "the president's left-leaning stances on immigration, gun control, climate change, and gay and women's rights," and that the perception has arisen that "Obama lost focus on the economy." They are once again promising a big pivot to job creation and economic growth in tonight's speech.
That may well prove correct, at least in Obama's speech. As Obama has proven over the last four years, though, talk is cheap. Obama's inaction speaks louder than words on this topic, and no number of standing ovations will obscure that fact tonight. Unless Obama reverses course and starts lightening the regulatory load on businesses, capital investment, and energy production, tonight's pivot will only amount to another empty State of the Union tradition — easy to predict, and utterly meaningless.