In the days leading up to President Obama's fifth State of the Union address Tuesday night, the big news was that the president was going to focus on "job creation" and "economic growth." Or, as The New York Times put it, Obama will "define a second-term agenda built around restoring economic prosperity to the middle class" and will "vow to use the power of his office to recapture robust job growth and economic expansion." This theme was previewed in a speech the president gave last week in which he told House Democrats that he will talk about "making sure that we're focused on job creation here in the United States."
That this was considered news is a symptom of how far both Washington's responsiveness to the economy and our expectations have fallen. It's now more than three months past the election. That we need "job creation here in the United States" is not exactly a novel idea. And yet much of the president's focus from November to February has been on how to craft a version of economic austerity that is less destructive than the wildly destructive one advanced by the Republicans. Certainly less destructive is better than more destructive -- but neither will result in job creation.
But it's what comes after the speech that's important. Or, I should say, between Tuesday's speech and the next one, since jobs and the economy have made regular appearances in Obama's four previous State of the Union addresses, as well. Here are the number of SOTU mentions of the word "jobs" in the past four years:
So talk about jobs has increased each year. But significant action hasn't followed. And yet each year it's somehow news that the president will talk about jobs or unveil some new rhetorical angle on the economy (one "built to last," one that will "win the future," one that shows how we "do big things"). Maybe the reason it's news each year is actually because there's so little action taken in between the speeches. Washington forgets about jobs all year long -- until suddenly, there it is, in late January or early February or just before elections. Oh, it's you again. It's become a rhetorical version of the guest brought to sit next to the first lady at each State of the Union. "Sitting to the left of my beautiful wife is the heroic firefighter who saved 37 children. And sitting on her right: our Concern for Jobs and the Middle Class." Right on cue, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle stand and applaud -- Concern for Jobs and the Middle Class has a big bipartisan following. And that's the last we see of it for another year. "Here's your plane -- I mean, bus -- ticket back home. And be sure to keep late January of next year open on your schedule!"
It's an example of Obama's -- and our -- magical thinking about big ceremonial speeches. Yes, they can be important in setting an agenda and letting the country know what the White House's priorities are. But only if that's really the agenda and those are really the priorities. More often, the annual SOTU address becomes a not-very-meaningful night of kabuki theater (who says Washington doesn't have a vibrant arts scene?).
On Sunday, I appeared as a panelist on CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS." Although I agree with my fellow panelist Paul Krugman on matters of growth and austerity, we had different views on the matter of presidential focus. "I always hear this about focus," said Paul. "But what is it you want him to do? What he should be doing is passing legislation, right? But no legislation can pass. If he proposed anything that made any sense at all, it would get nowhere in the House."
I have no illusions about the inclinations of John Boehner and Eric Cantor and Mitch McConnell. But that's no reason to abdicate leadership on the biggest crisis facing the country.
And yes, I have no doubt that the president is concerned about jobs and would rather have more of them than fewer of them. But there are different levels of presidential focus. For instance, think back to the Bush White House and the run-up to the war in Iraq. That's certainly one example of what a focused White House looks like. They were single-mindedly focused on dragging the country into an unprecedented -- and disastrous -- pre-emptive war. It was a big project, and, with relentless focus, they pulled it off. That was one issue on which a White House could not be accused of not backing up its rhetoric with action.
Cut to 2013 and, unlike Iraqi WMDs, we're facing a threat -- long-term joblessness and middle-class decline -- that actually does exist. In fact, it's been doing serious damage for years now. But if there's anybody in the White House who wants to do battle with unemployment as badly as George Bush and Dick Cheney (and a few dozen others) wanted to do battle with Iraq, I hope they'll get their war on in the second term.
So while I sincerely welcomed a focus in Tuesday's speech on jobs and growth, I just as sincerely hope that it's followed by clear and sustained action.
Arianna Huffington is president and editor-in-chief of Huffington Post Media Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.(c) 2013 Arianna Huffington. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.