Obama in Osawatomie
December 6, 2011
After months of Republican candidates offering a cascade of bad ideas about the economy, President Obama’s speech in Osawatomie, Kan., Tuesday came as a relief. He made it clear that he was finally prepared to contest the election on the issues of income inequality and the obligation of both government and the private sector to enlarge the nation’s shrinking middle class.
The economic downturn, combined with ideological gridlock, has created a “make-or-break moment” for the middle class and for those trying to enter it, he said. Mr. Obama correctly framed the choice for voters: The country can return to policies that stacked the deck for the wealthy and left everyone else to fend for themselves, creating what he called “you’re on your own economics.” Or elected officials can step in to keep competition fair and ensure the government has enough money to protect the vulnerable and invest in education and research.
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.
The chances of a poor child making it into the middle class have severely diminished since World War II, he said. That, he said, “flies in the face of everything that we stand for.”
It is rare for a president to be so explicit about a national income gap, but it is hardly “un-American” to think about it, as Newt Gingrich said recently. In fact, it is a pressing issue that goes back more than a century. Mr. Obama spoke in the same town where Theodore Roosevelt issued his call for a square deal in 1910. In demanding “a new nationalism,” Roosevelt supported strong government oversight of business, a “graduated income tax on big fortunes,” an inheritance tax and the primacy of labor over capital. For that, he was called a socialist and worse, as Mr. Obama observed, having endured the same.
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.