Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Obama’s Osawatomie Speech

The speech the president delivered yesterday in Osawatomie, Kansas has liberal pundits dancing in the streets. Robert Reich calls it “the most important economic speech of his presidency.” Michael Tomasky thinks the speech showed that Obama “finally gets it”: “[t]his was [his] best speech in a very, very long time, and it showed that he and his political people have finally figured out how to express the new quasi-populist mood in the country . . .”

Granted, Obama gave a nice speech inasmuch as it artfully wove together the themes that he'll be running on in the next election. But other than the strained historical comparison the president drew between himself and Teddy Roosevelt, can you find in it a single idea, even a single formulation of an idea, that you haven't heard countless times before? As far as I can tell, there was nothing new programmatically. It’s not as if we haven’t heard Obama say things like this before:
"But in the long term, we have to rethink our tax system more fundamentally. We have to ask ourselves: Do we want to make the investments we need in things like education, and research, and high-tech manufacturing? Or do we want to keep in place the tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans in our country? Because we can’t afford to do both. That’s not politics. That’s just math."
Nor did Obama break much new rhetorical ground when it came to enunciating core values. Granted, he has never been one to wear his liberal values on his sleeve. Indeed, he has said that one of the errors of his first term was letting himself be mistaken for a traditional “tax and spend liberal.” But the passages in yesterday's speech that are reputed to have captured the country's new "populist mood" are indistinguishable from things Obama was saying when he was still trying to play the honest broker standing between the liberal base of his own party and the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party:
"I’m here to reaffirm my deep conviction that we are greater together than we are on our own. 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. Those aren’t Democratic or Republican values; 1% values or 99% values. They’re American values, and we have to reclaim them.”
So why are people like Reich and Tomasky suddenly so giddy? If the explanation has little to do with what Obama actually said, it can only be a matter of the way he said it. Liberal platitudes that used to clutter the background of Obama’s speeches have now been pushed to the foreground. That’s enough to exhilarate people who’ve been observing the president from the left the same way conservative Republicans were exhilarated in 1964 and 1980 when Goldwater and Reagan started saying things out loud that other Republican presidential candidates would mutter only under their breath, if they bothered to say them at all.

Recall, however, that the similar levels of exhilaration excited by Goldwater and Reagan in conservative circles didn't predict the very different outcomes of the 1964 and 1980 elections. A lot of conservatives, captivated by Goldwater’s ideological forthrightness, succumbed to the wishful thought that he’d mobilize an army of “stay-at-home-Republicans” who’d dropped out of the political process during the Eisenhower years. Nominating Goldwater facilitated a Democratic landslide that enabled Lyndon Johnson to expand the welfare state by, among other things, enacting Medicare and Medicaid.  Conservatives would have to wait another 16 years before they'd get a comparably intense, but longer-lasting, buzz off Reagan.

Is Occupy Wall Street a good enough reason for people like Reich and Tomasky to be so confident that, for liberals, 2012 will be more like 1980 was for conservatives than 1964?

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