Most of Washington ignored President Obama's Sept. 16 speech marking the fifth anniversary of the financial meltdown. For good reason; the city was consumed by the mass murders unfolding at the Navy Yard just a few miles from the White House. When Obama began speaking, the TV networks carried his opening remarks on the shootings, and then cut away when he got to the substance of his speech.
But a few people in Washington were watching. The strategists working to guide House Republicans to victory in the 2014 midterm elections were taking careful note of the president's words. "I think it was a critically important speech," says one Republican closely involved in the effort. "It's what he believes the debate in 2014 is going to sound like, and it's the opening salvo of defining where this economy is going and who has the initiative."
Obama began, as he always does, by reminding his audience just how bad things were in late 2008 and early 2009. In an astonishingly brief time, investment banks failed, the stock market cratered, jobs disappeared, lending dried up and the auto industry nearly collapsed.
Then, Obama explained, his policies came to the rescue: stimulus, infrastructure spending, mortgage assistance, financial reform, the auto rescue and more. The payoff for all that work, he said, is 7.5 million new jobs in the last 3 1/2 years, a falling unemployment rate, a recovering housing market and a falling federal deficit.
"What all this means is we've cleared away the rubble from the financial crisis and we've begun to lay a new foundation for economic growth and prosperity," Obama said. In the future, he pledged to "push back against the trends that have been battering the middle class for decades."
Unless the bad guys stop him. "The problem is at the moment, Republicans in Congress don't seem to be focused on how to grow the economy and build the middle class," Obama said. GOP policies would starve education, research, infrastructure. They would hurt the middle class. Sequestration would cripple vital areas of government.
Obama laid the blame on the "extreme wing" of the GOP. "I cannot remember a time when one faction of one party promises economic chaos if it can't get 100 percent of what it wants," the president said. "After all that we've been through these past five years ... are some of these folks really so beholden to one extreme wing of their party that they're willing to tank the entire economy?"
Many Republicans will roll their eyes; they've heard the president's rhetoric many times before. But it worked in 2012, and with jobs and the economy still by far the nation's No. 1 issue, Obama intends to press those themes hard through 2014. "This was a speech designed to create a clear narrative that is going to last for a while," says the GOP strategist. "He's saying, 'If it hadn't been for me, we wouldn't have turned the economy around, and the Republicans have been trying to blow it up.'"
Meanwhile, as Obama lays the groundwork for the coming campaign, Republicans are fighting among themselves over an impossible quest to defund Obamacare. After that is resolved, they will fight among themselves over the circumstances of increasing the nation's debt limit. And then they'll fight among themselves over something else.
Every day the GOP is consumed with its internal squabbles is a day Republicans don't concentrate on the issues most important to voters. So now, amid the feuding, some in the GOP are asking: What case will we make for ourselves in 2014? In the strategist's words, "What has a Republican Congress accomplished?"
Obama's speech gave them the structure of an argument. Those 7.5 million jobs? Well, the vast majority of them, 5.7 million, came after Republicans took control of the House in January 2011. Falling unemployment? The majority of that has come since then. Falling deficit? The same.
"There has been an important shift in direction since we've been in," says the Republican strategist. "We need to start saying that."
The point is not to dump on Obama. The point is to show what Republicans have done with power. "He's not going to be up for re-election again," says the strategist. "We better start proving to people that if we're given responsibility, we can do something with it. This isn't about him any more. It's about who we are."
That's something Republicans need to think deeply about -- if they ever stop arguing with each other.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.