It appears Obama is turning against his own accommodationist strategy of the last three years, and doing it in typical Obama fashion. He gave a speech. As expected, it set the tone and themes for his 2012 campaign. In sweep it was similar to his 2008 stump speech. At that time, he posed an essential question: why, with the knowledge and skills that this country has, can we not move forward in solving problems of competitiveness, economic growth, energy, immigration, the environment. He famously blamed hyper-partsan grid-lock. We have the skill but answers are stuck in the mud of Washington politics. That’s what his campaign was about.
Obama’s rhetorical sweep in 2008 sliced against wedge politics on the right and single issue narrowness on the left. Obama thought Republicans would respond in kind. Instead , they doubled-down on partisanship.
This year he’s asking something different: what are we becoming as a country? The crisis has heightened inequality and, as banks were bailed-out, the middle class was cheated out of a ‘fair shake’.
In 2011, if yesterday’s speech is an example, Obama turns the table. Obama’s sweep is draw on history. Starting with the Teddy Roosevelt comparison of the ‘trust-busting’ era today era of greed was ingenious. Obama then surveyed the ‘normal’ way the country worked out problems before and after WW2; the ability of labor and capital to come together to make the country grow beyond expectations; why workers expected and were rewarded the benefits their productivity earned; the American Dream of a better life for your children. That spirit of community has given way to an ultra-individualism of ‘every man for himself’, and judging by Wall Street, with any means necessary.
Obama’s speech pulled no punches. Just as in 2008 when Americans sensed there was nothing wrong with the country that couldn’t be solved by working together, last week’s speech captured the sentiments of ordinary Americans who know something is wrong when their living standards decline while Wall Street basks in record profits.
By invoking history, Obama sweep this year played on nostalgia for a more earnest way of living. He contrasted the American value of pulling together with the divisiveness of today. This time, however, everyone’s experienced the consequences in their own lives or in the lives of relatives and friends.
And this time, President Obama chastised the opposition for ‘amnesia’ regarding the origins of the economic crisis; for wanting to go back to the same policies which got the country into it; for Republican refusal to approve essential consumer protection appointments; for the constant push-back the Administration gets from banks and the financial sector.
This is exactly the type of broad-scope analysis presented in an accessible form and pinpointing peoples’ fears that energized a majority in 2008. Especially independents and Republican transfers voted for Obama because he made sense, rhetoric aside.
Obama owes those voters a lot. They are not happy. He’s pulled the rabbit out of the hat before. The question is whether he can and will deliver as a lame duck. Not with big, fancy programs but with targeted programs that re-build a forward-looking dynamic.