Obama Checks In

The president delivers another economic status report.

President Barack Obama speaks on the economy at Georgetown University 

Before President Obama started his latest speech on the economy Tuesday, he should have called for approval of the minutes of the previous meeting. That’s the usual first order of business at board meetings before the chairman gives a status update, which is what Obama’s regular briefings have become. The only thing that changes is the venue. In February he gave his report before Congress. In March he did it before the media. Tuesday he delivered his update before an audience of students at Georgetown University.

Obama’s periodic messages have been predictable and formulaic by design. The issues are difficult and complex, so the president must explain how we got into this mess. The solutions are many and varied, so he’s always got something new to talk about. And the public is anxious and volatile, so Obama needs regular opportunities to adjust the highly sensitive political gauges that can quickly get dangerously out of whack. He’s got to be optimistic (he sees “glimmers of hope”) but not too optimistic (“We’re not out of the woods yet”). He must show that he’s working like a dog (“You can expect an unrelenting, unyielding, day-by-day effort from this administration”) and that he’s not out of touch ("No one is angrier about AIG than I am”). And he also has to remind people of the larger reason they’re being asked to accept a fundamental level of unfairness.

He devoted the beginning of the speech to “the recovery puzzle,” an explanation of America’s economic dilemma and the many steps—from bank capitalization to support for homeowners to work at the G20—he’s taken to combat it. He addressed complaints from the left and the right that he has done too little and too much. And he talked to regular folk. “Where’s my bailout?” he said, paraphrasing a message he says he hears a lot. “It makes sense intuitively, and morally it makes sense, but the truth is that a dollar of capital in a bank can actually result in $8 or $10 of loans to families and businesses.” He has not been harder on the banks, he explained, “because it is more likely to undermine than to create confidence.”

Though the president promised “prose not poetry,” he was a little more poetic, or at least biblical, than usual. He framed the speech around the parable from the Sermon on the Mount in which a house survives a tempest because it is founded on solid rock. (A favorite of songwriters and sermonizers, the reference will give ammunition to those who think Obama has a messiah complex: In the parable, following Jesus’ words created the foundation for a saved life; follow Obama’s policies, and you’ll have a saved economy.) The parable seemed apt—particularly for an economic crisis built on a housing bubble—but the president’s message was not about the problems of the past. It was another step in a sales job that has evolved from making the case for measures necessary to confront the problems he inherited to pitching the programs in his budget he thinks will create a foundation for a brighter future.

And Obama’s budget is a much bigger project than the recovery. If the recovery was a three-legged stool, the foundation is built on five pillars: regulating Wall Street, improving education, reforming health care, encouraging renewable energies, and reducing the deficit. Clearly, the stimulus is already leading to a construction expansion. Obama defended the size of his ambitions against charges that he was a liberal spendthrift by arguing that without these investments, the economy would not grow sufficiently in the future.

The president keeps giving these speeches because they appear to be working. In a new Gallup poll, 71 percent say that they have a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in the president. But he’s got to stay on the case. While people trust him on the economy, only 54 percent in a recent Pew survey say he’s explained his policies well enough. The White House is also watching closely the gap between Obama’s approval rating (in the low 60s) and approval of the programs he’s offering. Only 54 percent, for example, think his policies will reduce the deficit. According to the Washington Post, after two months of vigorous debate about the president’s stimulus package and ambitious budget blueprint, confidence that his economic agenda would lead to a recovery has decreased by 13 points among independents and a similar number among Republicans.

One of the take-aways from this meeting, then, is clear. We’ll be hearing from the chairman again soon enough. You can bank on it.