The President Speaks

Sep 6, 2011

Once upon a time, it was an enormous deal whenever a President came to town. I know a woman who was a little girl of six in Pontiac sixty-three years ago, when President Harry Truman came to make a Labor Day speech in Detroit. There was a motorcade along Woodward, and she still has a vivid memory of standing along the curb and hoping for a glimpse of the President on his car.

Incidentally, her parents were Republicans. They didn’t vote for Truman that fall, when he won re-election in a stunning upset. But that didn’t matter. He was the President of the United States, and if you had a chance to see him, you took it.

These days, however, presidents are always on the move. Mr. Obama visited a battery factory in Ottawa County barely three weeks ago. True, an estimated 12,000 people braved crowds and traffic to pack into a parking lot on Detroit’s riverfront to see President Obama yesterday. But 42,000 had come downtown the night before, to pay money see the Detroit Tigers annihilate Obama’s Chicago White Sox.

The comparison isn’t fair, in a way. These days, almost everybody had the ability to watch the President on TV or the internet, which certainly wasn’t true in the days of Harry Truman.

However, Truman started something that Labor Day long ago that still continues today: The tradition that Democrats running for election or reelection as President kick off their campaigns with a Labor Day speech in Detroit. Campaigns start a lot earlier these days, and that was part of what was going on here.

But something else was going on too. Whether they realized it or not, Detroiters yesterday got a glimpse into this president‘s re-election strategy, a page he took from Harry Truman‘s book.

The president told them that in his nationally televised address on Thursday, quote, “we’re going to lay out a new way forward on jobs to grow the economy and put more Americans back to work.”

He hinted at something I talked to him about when he was a candidate: A call for the federal government to put thousands to work rebuilding the nation’s crumbling roads and bridges. The president will ask Congress to enact legislation doing this. But the Republicans who control the House will almost certainly say no. Partly because they are against more federal spending; partly because they don’t want to make Barack Obama look good. And then the President will run on the platform that they are keeping jobs from the American people.

Harry Truman did much the same long ago. He called a Republican Congress back into session and asked them to pass his program for the good of the nation. They sneered at him.

On Election Night, as his lead mounted into the millions and Republicans lost nearly a hundred seats in Congress, they realized they had been had. Things are unlikely to play out exactly the same way this year. But this president intends to throw down a challenge.

And there are thirteen million unemployed Americans who know only this: That they really need a job.

And that’s likely to frame our political debate in the months to come.