President Obama’s speech in Kansas on Tuesday was the most direct condemnation of wealth and income inequality, and the most expansive moral defense of the need for government activism to combat it, of his entire presidency.
Obama cast the question of whether government can and should act to combat inequality as a referendum on American values and national identity. Democrats see a philosophical and moral argument over government’s proper role in regulating the economy, restoring our future and striving to maintain economic fairness as more favorable to them than the GOP’s preferred frame: a referendum on the current state of the economy and Obama’s efforts to fix it.
“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. Should we call it “yo-yo economics”?
Democrats believe there has been a fundamental shift in how Americans view the economy. They think rising anxiety about inequality is not about just the top 1 percent’s runaway success but also the perception that unfettered capitalism has badly undermined the security and future of the middle class. Occupy Wall Street reflects broader concerns that are thoroughly mainstream, and no matter what people tell pollsters, they want sustained government action when they understand that action serves to restore the middle class’ security and durability.
That’s why Obama blasted the GOP’s laissez-faire emphasis as a failure and linked it to the early-20th-century debate between the forces of unregulated capitalism, which caused massive inequality and suffering, and Theodore Roosevelt’s insistence on government intervention to combat inequality for the national good.
“Roosevelt was called a radical, a socialist, even a communist,” Obama said, in a tacit reference to similar attacks on him. “But today, we are a richer nation and a stronger democracy because of what he fought for in his last campaign: an eight-hour workday and a minimum wage for women; insurance for the unemployed, the elderly and those with disabilities; political reform and a progressive income tax.” The validity of some of these government functions, of course, is still being debated.
Those who had hoped that Obama and Democrats would make an unapologetically populist and moral case against inequality and economic injustice central to the 2012 campaign should be pretty pleased with what they heard.