Deadline: Fairest of Them All

by Jonathan Cohn | December 6, 2011

[with contributions from Matt O'Brien and Darius Tahir]

Liberals who wanted President Obama to embrace populism have gotten their wish -- again. On Tuesday, speaking in Osawatomie, Kansas, Obama made a passionate call for “fairness” – laying out the themes that he will be using in the year to come, as a lawmaker and increasingly as a candidate for re-election. It’s the latest step in an evolution that began in August, after the debt ceiling debate, when Obama began focusing on his jobs program.

Obama’s goal in the speech was to channel the spirit of Theodore Roosevelt, who gave his famous “New Nationalism” speech in the same city back in 1910. Roosevelt had called for “practical equality of opportunity for all citizens” and made clear that “I stand for fair play under the present rules of the game, but that I stand for having those rules changed so as to work for a more substantial equality of opportunity and of reward for equally good service.”

Obama, for his part, said he wanted to guarantee fairness for the middle class – and attacking, in no uncertain terms, the conservative economic policies that have violated those principles. “It doesn’t work,” Obama said. “It has never worked.” This was a blunt, aggressive speech – and Obama seemed to revel in it. “This isn’t about class warfare,” Obama said. “This is about the nation’s welfare.”

The piece had two new policy wrinkles, according to David Dayen. Obama vowed to veto any efforts to weaken the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill and he called for strengthening the penalties on Wall Street firms that anti-fraud laws. Otherwise, the speech covered familiar ground – the need for a payroll tax break, financed by tax hikes on the wealthy; the sanctity of Social Security and Medicare; the need for more investment on education.

Still, this wasn’t a speech about policy. It was a speech about principles. And in laying out those principles, Obama actually shifted the focus just a bit from where it’s been in the last few months.

This speech wasn’t exclusively, or even primarily, about the effects of the Great Recession. It was about the long-term trend towards inequality, with the poor and middle class struggling even as the rich get ahead.

This kind of gaping inequality gives lie to the promise that’s at the very heart of America:  that this is a place where you can make it if you try.  We tell people -- we tell our kids -- that in this country, even if you’re born with nothing, work hard and you can get into the middle class.  We tell them that your children will have a chance to do even better than you do.  That’s why immigrants from around the world historically have flocked to our shores. 
And yet, over the last few decades, the rungs on the ladder of opportunity have grown farther and farther apart, and the middle class has shrunk.  You know, a few years after World War II, a child who was born into poverty had a slightly better than 50-50 chance of becoming middle class as an adult.  By 1980, that chance had fallen to around 40 percent.  And if the trend of rising inequality over the last few decades continues, it’s estimated that a child born today will only have a one-in-three chance of making it to the middle class -- 33 percent. 
It’s heartbreaking enough that there are millions of working families in this country who are now forced to take their children to food banks for a decent meal.  But the idea that those children might not have a chance to climb out of that situation and back into the middle class, no matter how hard they work?  That’s inexcusable.  It is wrong.  (Applause.)  It flies in the face of everything that we stand for. 

Obama is on mostly solid ground here, as my colleague Tim Noah, TNR’s resident expert on inequality, can tell you. Joblessness is a true crisis right now; it demands a crisis response. But the poor and middle-class were having a hard time even before the recession.

Of course, it's just one speech. But this isn't the last time we've heard these themes, as Greg Sargent points out:

Political scientists will tell you that individual speeches don’t matter; and that grand themes are very unlikely to supplant the direct experience of the economy as a motivator of voters. But we’ll be hearing these themes countless times between now and election day. And anyone 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.

Elsewhere:

No, this isn't a story about the GOP presidential field. Why do you ask? 

What to do about Newt? With a month to go before the Iowa caucuses, it’s the Republican base v. Republican elites. Byron York explains.

The Rogues’ Gallery: A New York Times infographic showing banker recidivism: how some banks commit crimes over…and over…and over again.  (Bank of America and Citigroup are your leaders.)

Small Army: Benjamin Carlson of The Daily reveals how a Department of Defense program has armed police forces with $500 million in military equipment in fiscal year 2011. Because what every police department needs is a grenade launcher.

Is Albert Pujols really worth $100 million – or more? Nathan Pippenger doubts it.

How much? Josh Barro explains why the lack of medical pricing transparency is a problem 

Reader comment of the day: From “nusholtz,” in response to my item about seniors saving money on prescriptions thanks to the Affordable Care Act:

It's a communist takeover! Which, by the way, is higher up in the polls than Congress. 

Article of the day: Speaking of Obamacare, make sure to read this first-person essay by Spike Dolomite Ward, who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and who has health insurance coverage through an early provision of the Affordable Care Act.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/jonathan-cohn/98236/deadline-fairest-them-all