Obama’s second inaugural speech was 2,214 words long, but two very important words never got said: economy* and unemployment.
In fact, the subject of the struggling economy that dominated Obama’s first term never came up. Ask yourself: when was the last time you heard a major address that didn’t center entirely upon jobs, growth, and the woes of recession? Circa 2007, I’d reckon. The aftermath of the economic collapse has been so pernicious that it’s eaten up all other topics: immigration has primarily been a debate about job availability; climate change has been taken over by worries that environmental regulation will destroy economic growth; health care became about bending cost curves to stimulate growth rather than delivering insurance to those who needed it. Every issue has been reduced to: will it help jumpstart the economy, and if not, get it out of the way.
When viewed this way, the damage wreaked by the housing crisis and the banking collapse must be measured as more than the palpable effects of terms of joblessness, foreclosures, frozen credit, etc. By sucking all the oxygen out of the country, it deprived us of the ability to deal with anything else. Sure enough, the first and easiest response to any initiative Obama has proposed in the past four years has been that he’s diverting attention away from jobs and the economy; why, crowed Republicans, are we arguing about birth control access when there was an 8.3% unemployment? (Never mind that they started that fight.) Every debate became proxy debate for the economy, or got accused of playing distractor, or both. It was this ubiquity that caused many to view Obama’s 2009 health care push, as opposed to additional job and stimulus measures, as a huge mistake, and makes it all the more miraculous that he pulled it off.
The impressive array of causes Obama dealt with in his twenty minute speech to day shows how much we’ve missed while dealing with the fallout of the economy. Immigration, climate change, women’s pay, infrastructure, education, gay rights: these warranted peripheral mentions at best in former SOTU addresses or convention speeches, coming after 10-15 minutes of doleful talk about jobs and the deficit. Now they were the speech. They set the tone: this was not a lecture about sacrifice, for which Obama is an unenthusiastic salesman, but equality, which he could sell to anyone with two ears, and it was delivered in tones more redolent of his 2008 speeches than, say, his 2012 convention speech, or any of his mid-term addresses to Congress. This was Obama reclaiming his presidency from the circumstances in which he first found it four years ago, remembering what he would have done had he not been saddled by disaster from day one.
For a President who took office in an economic crisis, and who as recently as six months ago was considered doomed by a historically high unemployment rate, to not so much as mention the economy or unemployment is tantamount to a declaration of victory. The economy is by no means great, but it’s improving steadily, and Obama slyly but unmistakably took its weight off his shoulders. Republicans are no doubt roiling over his speech’s mentions of climate change and gay rights and immigration and so on, but the smart ones know what they didn’t hear.
* He used the word economy once, but in a general and irrelevant sense.