Since President Obama began his effort to shift the national economic debate in early September, he’s given plenty of speeches. When he spoke in Kansas yesterday, however, this wasn’t just another speech.
Obama traveled to Osawatomie, a small town where Teddy Roosevelt delivered his historic New Nationalism speech 101 years ago, and echoed related themes. While presidential speeches surely come and go, and there’s ample evidence that one set of remarks does very little to change the larger political landscape, Obama’s speech presented an economic vision that sets the terms of the 2012 debate. Indeed, yesterday was arguably the unofficial kickoff of the president’s re-election bid.
If you haven’t seen the speech, it’s worth taking the time to watch it. Here’s the MSNBC version:
There was at least some contemporary news in the remarks. Obama pushed, for example, for Senate confirmation of Richard Cordray to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, so there will be one official responsible for “protecting everyday Americans from being taken advantage of by mortgage lenders or payday lenders or debt collectors.” The president also vowed to veto Republican efforts to weaken Wall Street reform, and in fact called for some additional measures.
But on the whole, the Osawatomie speech was about thematic arguments and indictments against a failed, misguided conservative visions.
“[T]here’s been a raging debate over the best way to restore growth and prosperity, restore balance, restore fairness. Throughout the country, it’s sparked protests and political movements — from the tea party to the people who’ve been occupying the streets of New York and other cities. It’s left Washington in a near-constant state of gridlock. It’s been the topic of heated and sometimes colorful discussion among the men and women running for president.
“But, Osawatomie, this is not just another political debate. This is the defining issue of our time. This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and for all those who are fighting to get into the middle class.”
If the national debate in the near-future is over whether Americans want to go forward or backward, the president urged voters not to forget what brought us to this point.
“Now, in the midst of this debate, there are some who seem to be suffering from a kind of collective amnesia. After all that’s happened, after the worst economic crisis, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, they want to return to the same practices that got us into this mess. In fact, they want to go back to the same policies that stacked the deck against middle-class Americans for way too many years. And their philosophy is simple: We are better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules.
“I am here to say they are wrong. I’m here in Kansas to reaffirm my deep conviction that we’re greater together than we are on our own. I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules. These aren’t Democratic values or Republican values. These aren’t 1 percent values or 99 percent values. They’re American values. And we have to reclaim them. […]
“Now, just as there was in Teddy Roosevelt’s time, there is a certain crowd in Washington who, for the last few decades, have said, let’s respond to this economic challenge with the same old tune. ‘The market will take care of everything,’ they tell us…. [I]t’s a simple theory. And we have to admit, it’s one that speaks to our rugged individualism and our healthy skepticism of too much government. That’s in America’s DNA. And that theory fits well on a bumper sticker. But here’s the problem: It doesn’t work. It has never worked. It didn’t work when it was tried in the decade before the Great Depression. It’s not what led to the incredible postwar booms of the ’50s and ’60s. And it didn’t work when we tried it during the last decade. I mean, understand, it’s not as if we haven’t tried this theory.
“Remember in those years, in 2001 and 2003, Congress passed two of the most expensive tax cuts for the wealthy in history. And what did it get us? The slowest job growth in half a century. Massive deficits that have made it much harder to pay for the investments that built this country and provided the basic security that helped millions of Americans reach and stay in the middle class — things like education and infrastructure, science and technology, Medicare and Social Security.
“Remember that in those same years, thanks to some of the same folks who are now running Congress, we had weak regulation, we had little oversight, and what did it get us? Insurance companies that jacked up people’s premiums with impunity and denied care to patients who were sick, mortgage lenders that tricked families into buying homes they couldn’t afford, a financial sector where irresponsibility and lack of basic oversight nearly destroyed our entire economy.
“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. We know that it doesn’t result in a strong economy. It results in an economy that invests too little in its people and in its future. We know it doesn’t result in a prosperity that trickles down. It results in a prosperity that’s enjoyed by fewer and fewer of our citizens.”
You want a populist president, putting the interests of working families and the middle class above all? You’ve got it. For 55 minutes, Barack Obama made the case for progressive governance while destroying the foundation for the right’s vision.
This wasn’t a “let’s compromise” speech. It wasn’t a “Democrats and Republican can get along” speech. And it certainly wasn’t a “I’m ready to meet my opponents half-way” speech. Obama’s given those speeches, he’s made those efforts, and he’s invested enormous energy in trying to close the gap between the parties.
The president does not seem willing, though, to keep pushing a right-wing boulder that will not move. Instead, Obama is presenting the vision he believes in, and wants the American mainstream to rally behind it, whether radicalized Republicans like it or not.
“This isn’t about class warfare,” Obama said. “This is about the nation’s welfare.”
This NYT editorial got it right: “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…. 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.”