Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Kicking It Off In Kansas

President Obama launched his reelection campaign yesterday with a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas. Greg Sargent at the Washington Post‘s Plum Line sums it up.

The speech is best seen as a bid to establish a moral and philosophical framework within which literally all of the political and policy battles of the next year will unfold, including the biggest one of all: The presidential campaign itself.

While Obama did pivot to a more populist posture earlier this fall after the debt ceiling debacle, today’s speech was notable for its more direct emphasis on inequality itself as a moral scourge and as a threat to the country’s future. He cast the question of whether government can and should act to combat inequality as a referendum on American values and our national identity.

The clash of visions Obama tried to set the stage for today — a philosophical and moral argument over government’s proper role in regulating the economy and restoring our future — is seen by Dems as more favorable to them than the GOP’s preferred frame for Campaign 2012, i.e., a referendum on the current state of the economy and on Obama’s efforts to fix it. Hence his constant references to the morality of “fairness.”

“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,” Obama said, in what will probably be the most enduring line of the speech. A number of people on Twitter immediately suggested a new shorthand: “YoYo Economics.”

The president also used the occasion to note that 101 years before, President Theodore Roosevelt made a similar speech in the same town in Kansas.

“Roosevelt was called a radical, a socialist, even a communist,” Obama said, in a tacit reference to similar attacks on himself. “But today, we are a richer nation and a stronger democracy because of what he fought for in his last campaign: an eight hour work day and a minimum wage for women; insurance for the unemployed, the elderly, and those with disabilities; political reform and a progressive income tax.” Strikingly, the validity of some of these same government functions is still being debated today.

The Republicans’ immediate reaction will be that this is class warfare, and how dare he attack the great Ronald Reagan and the trickle-down economics that got the banks and rich where they are today? (The only people who call it “class warfare” are the ones who are winning the war.)

By framing the debate in terms of fairness, the president is making it interesting for the Republicans to come back and explain why they are in favor of income inequality and economic stagnation for the people in the middle class who are the engine of the economy. As Mr. Sargent notes, “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.”

If this is class warfare, then let us make the most of it.


Footnote: In his speech, President Obama mentioned Marvin Windows and Doors of Warroad, Minnesota. For reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with politics and campaigns, that stuck a chord with me. But that’s another story.