WaPo columnist Greg Sargent takes a look at President Obama’s speech in Osawatomie Kansas, and finds it to be a critical point of departure, “a moral and philosophical framework within which literally all of the political and policy battles of the next year will unfold, including the biggest one of all: The presidential campaign itself.” Citing Obama’s emphasis on “inequality itself as a moral scourge and as a threat to the country’s future,” Sargent continues:
Obama’s speech in Kansas, which just concluded, was the most direct condemnation of wealth and income inequality, and the most expansive moral defense of the need for government activism to combat it, that Obama has delivered in his career…
The clash of visions Obama tried to set the stage for today — a philosophical and moral argument over government’s proper role in regulating the economy and restoring our future — is seen by Dems as more favorable to them than the GOP’s preferred frame for Campaign 2012, i.e., a referendum on the current state of the economy and on Obama’s efforts to fix it. Hence his constant references to the morality of “fairness.”
“We simply cannot return to this brand of you’re-on-your-own economics if we’re serious about rebuilding the middle class in this country,” Obama said, in what will probably be the most enduring line of the speech. A number of people on Twitter immediately suggested a new shorthand: “YoYo Economics.”
That line is key in another way. Dems believe inequality will be central in 2012 because they think there’s been a fundamental shift in how Americans view the economy, one rooted in the plight of the middle class and in the trauma created by the financial crisis.
A New York Times editorial affirms Sargent’s evaluation of the President’s speech:
The speech felt an awfully long time in coming, but it was the most potent blow the president has struck against the economic theory at the core of every Republican presidential candidacy and dear to the party’s leaders in Congress. The notion that the market will take care of all problems if taxes are kept low and regulations are minimized may look great on a bumper sticker, but, he said: “It doesn’t work. It has never worked.” Not before the Great Depression, not in the ’80s, and not in the last decade.
The president repeated his calls for the rich to pay higher taxes, for financial institutions to be more closely regulated and for education to become a national mission. What set this speech apart was the newly forceful explanation of why those policies are necessary. Incomes of the top 1 percent, he noted, have more than doubled in the last decade while the average income has fallen by 6 percent.
Mr. Obama was late to Roosevelt’s level of passion and action on behalf of the middle class and the poor, having missed several opportunities to make the tax burden more fair and demand real action on the housing crisis from the big banks that he excoriated so effectively in his speech.
But he has fought energetically for a realistic plan to put Americans back to work and has been stymied at every step by Republicans. That seems to have burned away his old urge to conciliate and compromise, and he is now fully engaged against the philosophy of his opponents.
Tuesday’s speech, in fact, seemed expressly designed to counter Mitt Romney’s argument that business, unfettered, will easily restore American jobs and prosperity. Teddy Roosevelt knew better 101 years ago, and it was gratifying to hear his fire reflected by President Obama.
Perhaps it’s not just Teddy Roosevelt the white house is channeling. The growing popularity of Elizabeth Warren in the MA Senate race, along with the Occupy demonstrations serve as potent indicators that a focused populist message may well be the Democrats’ best hope for exciting the base, winning swing voters and holding the white house and Senate in 2012.
From here on in, Dems will have no quarter for economic injustice in the 2012 campaign. As Sargent concludes, “…We’ll be hearing these themes countless times between now and election day. And those who had hoped that Obama and Dems would make an unapologetically populist and moral case against inequality and economic injustice central to Campaign 2012 should be pretty pleased with what they heard today.”