An appeal for fairness (and votes)

If President Obama’s State of the Union address was intended as a bookend to the December speech he delivered in Osawatomie, Kansas, it was a success. It was in Osawatomie that the president presented a vision based on populism, characterizing economic opportunity and justice “the defining issue of our time,” and last night, Obama did so again, using nearly-identical language.

After recalling his grandparents’ belief in “the basic American promise” that hard work led to economic security, the president argued, “The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive. No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important. We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”

By my count, Obama used the word “fair” or “fairness” 11 times in the address. Subtle it was not.

But there can be little doubt that populism suits him. Obama, to a degree that struck me as new, went after the banks rather aggressively, even proposing to pay for refinancing plan with “a small fee on the largest financial institutions,” which will in turn “give banks that were rescued by taxpayers a chance to repay a deficit of trust.”

The president also spoke extensively about the Buffett Rule: “Right now, because of loopholes and shelters in the tax code, a quarter of all millionaires pay lower tax rates than millions of middle-class households. Right now, Warren Buffett pays a lower tax rate than his secretary. Do we want to keep these tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans? Or do we want to keep our investments in everything else — like education and medical research; a strong military and care for our veterans? Because if we’re serious about paying down our debt, we can’t do both.”

All of this was cased as part of a larger vision that bolstered public investments, in the hopes of adding security for the middle class.

Was this a speech for the 99%? You bet it was.

But it was also an explicitly political speech. In an election year, the State of the Union is often considered the unofficial launch of an incumbent president’s campaign. Last night, this was so overt, I half expected the White House to put “Game On” on its home page.

The Republicans looking to replace Obama say the economy is worse now than in 2009. Oh yeah?

“In the last 22 months, businesses have created more than three million jobs. Last year, they created the most jobs since 2005. American manufacturers are hiring again, creating jobs for the first time since the late 1990s.”

Mitt Romney thinks we should have let Detroit go bankrupt and let the auto industry die Oh yeah?

“On the day I took office, our auto industry was on the verge of collapse. Some even said we should let it die. With a million jobs at stake, I refused to let that happen. In exchange for help, we demanded responsibility. We got workers and automakers to settle their differences. We got the industry to retool and restructure. Today, General Motors is back on top as the world’s number one automaker. Chrysler has grown faster in the U.S. than any major car company. Ford is investing billions in U.S. plants and factories. And together, the entire industry added nearly 160,000 jobs. We bet on American workers. We bet on American ingenuity. And tonight, the American auto industry is back.”

Romney recently argued , “Don’t try to stop the foreclosure process. Let it run its course and hit the bottom.” Oh yeah?

“[W]hile government can’t fix the problem on its own, responsible homeowners shouldn’t have to sit and wait for the housing market to hit bottom to get some relief.”

Romney whines a lot about class “envy.” Oh yeah?

“We don’t begrudge financial success in this country. We admire it. When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it’s not because they envy the rich. It’s because they understand that when I get tax breaks I don’t need and the country can’t afford, it either adds to the deficit, or somebody else has to make up the difference — like a senior on a fixed income; or a student trying to get through school; or a family trying to make ends meet. That’s not right. Americans know it’s not right. They know that this generation’s success is only possible because past generations felt a responsibility to each other, and to their country’s future, and they know our way of life will only endure if we feel that same sense of shared responsibility. That’s how we’ll reduce our deficit. That’s an America built to last.”

Republicans call tax justice “class warfare.” Oh yeah?

“Now, you can call this class warfare all you want. But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense.”

The GOP keeps insisting that the president is trying to “divide” Americans. Oh yeah?

“No one built this country on their own. This Nation is great because we built it together. This Nation is great because we worked as a team. This Nation is great because we get each other’s backs. And if we hold fast to that truth, in this moment of trial, there is no challenge too great; no mission too hard. As long as we’re joined in common purpose, as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, our future is hopeful, and the state of our Union will always be strong.”

This State of the Union speech made a deliberate effort to establish the foundation for the 2012 campaign. If these addresses are about letting a president make clear what he or she will fight for — and they are — Obama made it pretty clear last night that he intends to take a populist message to the electorate in the coming months.

If he sticks to it, I like his chances.