Assailing GOP Economic Policies, Obama Urges "Fair Play"

Assailing GOP Economic Policies, Obama Urges "Fair Play"

By Alexis Simendinger - December 6, 2011


On Tuesday, President Obama delivered a rousing State-of-the-Union-style address in Otawatamie, Kan., and evoked Presidents Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton before declaring himself the contemporary warrior for an American middle class where "everyone engages in fair play, everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share."

The president's nearly hour-long speech, delivered before 1,200 people at a high school in one of the reddest of red states, was in length, tone and vision the sort of messaging he favors each January when addressing Congress. But as Obama continues battling GOP lawmakers over how best to help the economy, his populist speech about American renewal set a more starkly partisan tone -- one that echoed some of the arguments of Occupy Wall Street devotees. He called the debate "the defining issue of our time."

Near the spot where TR championed a “square deal” and a “New Nationalism” in 1910, Obama rebooted his message to appeal to base Democrats and perhaps some of the independent voters he hopes to reclaim next year.

The first third of the speech was a remarkably bleak and candid assessment of the steeply altered landscape most Americans face and will not likely surmount in their lifetimes. He described decades of global technological changes that cut workers adrift, and “gaping inequality” that has produced extreme prosperity while the middle class has shriveled. Obama said a child born in poverty after World War II in the United States had a better than 50 percent chance of joining the middle class as an adult. Now, the odds have plummeted to one in three, or 33 percent, the president said, calling these trends “heartbreaking.”

Not done, Obama, who has been president for nearly a third of the last 10 years, reminded his audience that Americans have seen their incomes fall by about 6 percent in the last decade. The political implications for the president are obvious: A downward slope in real personal incomes is thought by some political scientists to correlate in U.S. history with the defeat of incumbent presidents. Economic growth remains slow and while unemployment dropped in November from 9.0 percent to 8.6 percent, the improvement was slight -- just 120,000 new jobs were created.

Obama pivoted from the dreary to define his vision for American revival, suggesting that he alone is the candidate who has not been complicit in a great nation’s gradual descent. His Republican critics have been arguing the opposite for months.

Obama walked his listeners through the shuddering realities of the country’s precarious economic evolution before arguing that some Republicans, some on Wall Street, many ethically challenged businesses including some big banks, “high-priced lobbyists and unlimited campaign contributions,” and even greedy CEOs share responsibility for America’s “race to the bottom.”

Unfettered capitalism and “trickle-down” economics, Obama said, cannot fix what ails America and will not restore the country’s vanishing middle class. Government -- as TR, Eisenhower and Clinton evidenced during their administrations -- plays an indispensible role in leveling playing fields, safeguarding prosperity and the downtrodden, and defending American values, Obama said.

“There’s another view about how we build a strong middle class in this country -- a view that’s truer to our history, a vision that’s been embraced in the past by people of both parties for more than 200 years,” he said. “It’s not a view that we should somehow turn back technology or put up walls around America. It’s not a view that says we should punish profit or success or pretend that government knows how to fix all of society’s problems,” he continued. “It is a view that says in America we are greater together. . . . It starts by making sure that everyone in America gets a fair shot at success.”

Following the speech, White House officials said the president did not have in mind specific GOP presidential challengers currently in the race. But Obama’s address previewed the campaign spears he will surely throw at Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, the front-runners who have called the payroll tax holiday a Band-Aid (Romney), and suggested that poor people don’t have a work ethic (Gingrich).

“They want to go back to the same policies that stacked the deck against middle-class Americans for way too many years,” Obama said of the GOP. “And their philosophy is simple: We are better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules.”

Occupy Wall Street was holding sit-ins at the Capitol as Obama was speaking, and some of the themes of the “99 percent” heard around the country appeared in the president’s speech.

He allied himself with consumer watchdogs, saying he would veto any legislation that attempts to “delay, defund or dismantle” the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and its provisions as enacted in the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. He defended organized labor against “union busting” efforts favored by some conservatives.

Obama called for legislation to increase the size of penalties against Wall Street firms that violate anti-fraud laws so they are high enough to be punitive. And he repeatedly used the term “big banks” as a pejorative, urging major financial firms to help middle-class families and the banks’ own balance sheets by increasing “access to refinancing opportunities” for borrowers who would benefit from historically low interest rates.

“Our success has never just been about survival of the fittest,” the president concluded. “It’s about building a nation where we’re all better off. We pull together. We pitch in. We do our part. We believe that hard work will pay off, that responsibility will be rewarded; and that our children will inherit a nation where those values live on.” 

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.

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