President Obama is running for reelection as a progressive.
Better late than never!
The president’s speech Tuesday shows that he’s staking his bid for a second term on the issues of income inequality and the role of government in protecting and enlarging the nation’s shrinking middle class.
The venue of the speech was no accident. Mr. Obama chose the small town of Osawatomie in solidly Republican Kansas because it was the site of Theodore Roosevelt’s famous New Nationalism speech of 111 years ago.
In wrapping himself in Teddy Roosevelt’s mantle, Mr. Obama has adopted the Rough Rider’s view that government should be used “to equalize opportunity, destroy privilege, and give to the life and citizenship of every individual the highest possible value to himself and to the commonwealth.” Equal opportunity means “every man will have a fair chance to make of himself all that in him lies; to reach the highest point to which his capacities, unassisted by special privilege of his own and unhampered by the special privilege of others, can carry him.”
To allow for equal opportunity for all, Roosevelt asserted “the right to regulate the use of wealth in the public interest.” Corporations, which are combinations of wealth, must the regulated and controlled “in the interest of the public welfare.”
Tuesday, President Obama echoed many of the themes TR addressed. “Fewer and fewer of the folks who contributed to the success of our economy,” the president noted, “actually benefitted from that success. Those at the very top grew wealthier…. But everybody else struggled.”
It’s the same problem the first Roosevelt stressed. Mr. Obama said TR “knew the free market has never been a free license to take whatever you can from whomever you can. He understood the free market only works when there are rules of the road that ensure competition is fair and open and honest.”
The opponents of progressive reform today trot out many of the same timeworn ideas offered a century ago: “‘The market will take care of everything’ they tell us. If we just cut more regulations and cut more taxes — especially for the wealthy — our economy will grow stronger.”
This is trickle down economics, and the president noted: “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 ’50’s and ’60’s. 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.”
It’s the theory pushed by every one of the Republican candidates for president. They all subscribe to trickle down economics, the view that if you cut taxes on the rich they will invest that money in job creation.
Though the Osawatomie speech was short on specifics, Mr. Obama, by invoking Teddy Roosevelt, is responding to the Occupy Wall Street movement that has made addressing economic inequality a national priority.
More than three years into his presidency, President Obama has turned the 2012 election into a referendum on the progressive view that this is a middle-class nation that, when necessary, uses government power to protect the majority against the power of the privileged wealthy. It is a clear choice between his vision and the Republican devotion to protecting the prerogatives of the minority.