Obama's job-creation speech: subtext is everything

Amidst all the partisan bickering, I wanted to listen to President Obama's address on job creation with an open mind and a heart full of hope that this would (finally) be the beginning of a constructive dialogue.

After all the partisan bickering and circus antics that clouded the debt-ceiling debate a few weeks ago, I wanted to listen to President Obama's September 8 address before Congress on job creation with an open mind and a heart full of hope that this would (finally) be the beginning of a constructive dialogue. I really did.

In the end, though, the President's speech on job creation was not just about the words he delivered, but the subtle way he appeared to say one thing while meaning something entirely different. Despite the seemingly bipartisan approach, the subtext surrounding this address was extraordinarily partisan.

The atmospherics surrounding the timing of his address were ominous at the outset. From a political and communications standpoint, delivering a national address on job creation the week of Labor Day and with Congress back in session seemed ideal.

Then, things began to unravel a bit. First, there was an embarrassing miscue requiring the date of his Capitol Hill appearance to be changed because of a conflict with a previously-scheduled GOP presidential debate. The speech was then moved to the following day, only to compete with news stories about the devastation and flooding of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, not to mention the kickoff of the NFL football season and special programming focused on the commemoration of 10th anniversary of 9/11. With all those compelling stories vying for people's attention, it was a communicator's nightmare.

By most accounts, the President gave a good speech. It was suffused with a few solid proposals and it was well delivered. It contained all the right exhortations and calls to action and cooperation. He appeared to reach across the aisle and challenge his colleagues from both parties to work together and get things done. On the heels of his lowest job-approval ratings, he came across as a man of action – confident, conciliatory, and in control.

When you start analyzing the subtext of the speech, however, most of the soaring rhetoric collapsed and fell to the ground in a crumpled heap.

The President took a page out of Bill Clinton's playbook and “triangulated” – co-opting and appearing to support policies and proposals that Republicans have been advocating for quite some time, things such as lower employer and employee payroll taxes, tax credits, and higher deductions and depreciation rates for businesses.

The cheap shots in the speech about scofflaw “millionaires and billionaires” was also a little disingenuous, given that one of his special guests in the audience is a CEO of a Fortune 500 company that paid little, if any, corporate taxes in recent years.

And, of course, there were some subtle digs at his colleagues across the aisle. When talking about the need to improve our nation's crumbling infrastructure, he referred to a “bridge that needs repair between Ohio and Kentucky,” which just happen to be the home states of House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. And despite telling his Congressional audience, “This isn't political grandstanding,” he kicks off a tour to push his job-creation programs with events in House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's district in Richmond, VA, and Boehner's state of Ohio. Pretty coincidental, I'd say.

You can see the political gamesmanship that's going on here. The stakes are high on both sides and for the country. Subtext is everything.

Robert Tappan, a former senior official at the US Department of State, is president of The Tappan Group, a public affairs firm based in the Washington, DC area. His column looks at issues advocacy and related public affairs topics. He can be reached at: tappan@tappan.org.

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