Obama at Osawatomie

by Michael Sean Winters

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There was a lot to like, but also something missing, in the President’s much-touted speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, a location chosen because of the President’s desire to echo the sentiments expressed by President Theodore Roosevelt in his “New Nationalism” speech in the same small town more than a century ago. Indeed, the choice of location demonstrated more than any quotes ever could, two key facts that the President needs to emphasize as he begins his re-election big. First, Obama is no radical and, second, today’s Republican Party is a far cry from Teddy Roosevelt’s Republican Party.

The President framed the economic and policy debate in Washington in very simple, but morally significant, terms: “This is the defining issue of our time. This is a make or break moment for the middle class, and all those who are fighting to get into the middle class. At stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, and secure their retirement.” Finally, someone at the White House recognized that they need to relate economic policies to kitchen table aspirations, that they need to avoid the wonk-speak and talk about what Americans want out of their lives: raising their family and owning a home and retiring with some measure of security.

The President then enunicated what he wants to be the central defining issue of the 2012 election. He said:

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 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 have stacked the deck against middle-class Americans for too many years. Their philosophy is simple: we are better off when everyone is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules.
Well, I’m here to say they are wrong. I’m here to reaffirm my deep conviction that we are 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, and when everyone plays by the same rules. Those aren’t Democratic or Republican values; 1% values or 99% values. They’re American values, and we have to reclaim them.

Last night, in setting up this section of the speech, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow compared it to the speech then-State Sen. Barack Obama delivered at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the speech that put Obama on the national map. Maddow ran excerpts of that speech and called it his “We worship an awesome God in the blue states” speech. The designation is apt, which is one reason that yesterday’s speech in Osawatomie seemed so lacking. Apart from the required “God bless America” at the end, President Obama made no reference to religion or faith yesterday. He spoke of values, but did not take note of the fact that most Americans ground their values in their religious beliefs, nor that for most Americans, those religious values are completely at odds with the dog-eat-dog laissez faire vision that has so ensnared the GOP.

Let’s look at those words again. The President characterized the GOP’s approach thusly: “Their philosophy is simple: we are better off when everyone is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules.” Why not point out that this amounts to Social Darwinism? For many religious believers, Darwinism is a fighting word and invoking it would at least cause some to think twice before rushing to embrace Hayek and Rand and the other devotees of libertarian economics. When the President replied, “Well, I’m here to say that they are wrong,” liberals around the country screamed “Hallelujah!” or whatever secular equivalent liberals use, but I would have prefered the speech if the President had said, “Well, I’m here to say that they are wrong, wrong economically and wrong morally.”

The best part of yesterday’s speech was Obama’s direct, frontal assault on trickle down economics: “It’s a simple theory – one that speaks to our rugged individualism and healthy skepticism of too much government. It fits well on a bumper sticker. Here’s the problem: It doesn’t work. It’s 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 post-war boom of the 50s and 60s. And it didn’t work when we tried it during the last decade.” I wish he had been a bit clearer on connecting the adoption of trickle down economics with the assault on the social safety net, do we really need to give more tax breaks to the super-rich or do we need to shore up Medicare? Do we really need more corporate welfare or do we need to invest in our curmbling infrastructure? Do we need to continue to treat some types of wealth, such as captial gains, differently from other types, such as wages, if that means we will have to run such large deficits, the wentire economy is imperilled?

So, basically, I give the President a thumbs up, but not two, for his speech yesterday. But, if he finds a way to bring the “awesome God” he mentioned in 2004 back into his talk about values in 2012, his speech would resonate more deeply. Curiously, in his New Nationalism speech one hundred years ago, Teddy Roosevelt also did not mention God or religion in his speech. But, in some ways, Roosevelt’s attack on unrestrained capitalism was even fiercer than Obama’s. You can read the text of TR’s speech here.

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