Obama Takes Cues from Occupy

For most of this year, it’s fair to say that liberals have been angry with President Obama’s reluctance to attack Republicans or build a liberal narrative with his rhetoric. And while some critics took this complaint to comical extremes—see: Drew Westen—the frustration was real, even among those who were (and are) skeptical of the bully pulpit.

As of late, however, Obama has grown a lot more aggressive in his attacks on the GOP; since introducing the American Jobs Act in September, the president’s political strategy has centered on demands for new stimulus, vocal attacks on the GOP for its defense of the wealthy, and a constant push to create contrasts between himself—as a defender of the middle-class—and the Republican Party.

With his latest speech in Osawatomie, Kansas—where Theodore Roosevelt laid out his vision for a “new nationalism” in 1910—President Obama doubled down on those themes and continued his push against Republican ideology. As he did in his opening pitch for the jobs act, Obama attacks the myth of “rugged individualism” and presents liberalism as the reasonable mainstream of American politics:

[I]n 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. […]

Insofar that there’s anything that sets this speech apart from others, it has less to do with Obama’s sharp rhetoric—he directly points to Republicans as the people who brought the economy to its knees—and everything to do with the current context. Obama’s position has been bolstered by the presence of Occupy Wall Street and its successful campaign to put income inequality at the top of the national agenda. Three months ago, in his first speech touting the American Jobs Act, President Obama made zero mention of income inequality. Today, he offered an extended discussion of its ill effects on our society:

[O]ver the last few decades, the rungs on the ladder of opportunity have grown farther and farther apart, and the middle class has shrunk.  A few years after World War II, a child who was born into poverty had a slightly better than 50–50 chance of becoming middle class as an adult.  By 1980, that chance fell to around 40%.  And if the trend of rising inequality over the last few decades continues, it’s estimated that a child born today will only have a 1 in 3 chance of making it to the middle class. 

It’s heartbreaking enough that there are millions of working families in this country who are now forced to take their children to food banks for a decent meal.  But the idea that those children might not have a chance to climb out of that situation and back into the middle class, no matter how hard they work? That’s inexcusable. It’s wrong. It flies in the face of everything we stand for.

Likewise, Obama hammered on policy proposals designed to protect consumers, strenthen financial reform, and implement tougher penalities on banks and other financial institutions that break the rules. Given the extent to which the public is eager for these kind of policies, it’s likely that this will play very well with voters.

Of all the lines in this speech, there is one—in particular—that you should pay attention to, “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.” This, in a nutshell, is Obama’s re-election message for 2012. You should prepare to hear it—and its many varations—on repeat over the next 11 months.