After Pres. Obama's address to Congress on September 8th, Demos president Miles Rapoport commended the shift in narrative from austerity politics -- that culminated in the debt-ceiling debacle -- to calling for investment in and assistance for ordinary Americans still reeling from the financial crisis. Rapoport then asked "Can he, will he, hold this theme?"
Three months later, and with commentators marking the opening of election season 2012 at Osawatomie, the answer appears to be "yes," and some.
Here's the President, with what Greg Sargent described as likely the most enduring passage in the speech:
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. We know that it doesn't result in a strong economy. It results in an economy that invests too little in its people and in its future. We know it doesn't result in a prosperity that trickles down. It results in a prosperity that's enjoyed by fewer and fewer of our citizens.
As for Occupy Wall Street's impact on the political debate, a quick keyword search for "inequality" in the September address turns up zilch. The President mentioned inequality six times at Osawatomie and further, cast the issue where it belongs, in moral terms:
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 one-in-three chance of making it to the middle class – 33%. 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 is wrong. It flies in the face of everything that we stand for.
Some other highlights, this on "trickle-down economics:"
Now, it's a simple theory. And we have to admit, it's one that speaks to our rugged individualism and our healthy skepticism of too much government. That's in America's DNA. And that theory fits well on a bumper sticker. But here's the problem: It doesn't work. It has never worked. It didn't work when it was tried in the decade before the Great Depression. It's not what led to the incredible postwar booms of the 50s and 60s. And it didn't work when we tried it during the last decade.
On government investment and free enterprise:
Yes, business, and not government, will always be the primary generator of good jobs with incomes that lift people into the middle class and keep them there. But as a nation, we've always come together, through our government, to help create the conditions where both workers and businesses can succeed. And historically, that hasn't been a partisan idea. Franklin Roosevelt worked with Democrats and Republicans to give veterans of World War II – including my grandfather, Stanley Dunham – the chance to go to college on the GI Bill. It was a Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, a proud son of Kansas who started the interstate highway system, and doubled down on science and research to stay ahead of the Soviets.
On taxing the wealthy:
Keep in mind, when President Clinton first proposed these tax increases, folks in Congress predicted they would kill jobs and lead to another recession. Instead, our economy created nearly 23 million jobs and we eliminated the deficit. Today, the wealthiest Americans are paying the lowest taxes in over half a century. This isn't like in the early 50s, when the top tax rate was over 90%. This isn't even like the early 80s, when the top tax rate was about 70%. Under President Clinton, the top rate was only about 39%. Today, thanks to loopholes and shelters, a quarter of all millionaires now pay lower tax rates than millions of you, millions of middle-class families. Some billionaires have a tax rate as low as 1%. One percent.
For the Occupiers and Tea Partiers alike:
Inequality also distorts our democracy. It gives an outsized voice to the few who can afford high-priced lobbyists and unlimited campaign contributions, and it runs the risk of selling out our democracy to the highest bidder. It leaves everyone else rightly suspicious that the system in Washington is rigged against them, that our elected representatives aren't looking out for the interests of most Americans.
And finally, on regulation:
Does anybody here think that the problem that led to our financial crisis was too much oversight of mortgage lenders or debt collectors?
This line elicited a groaning "No!" from the audience at Osawatomie High School.
This speech was music to many. Of course, politically speaking, there exists many lifetimes between now and November. But for advocates of the middle class and a robust role for government in correcting the failed policies of the past, this speech was something of a recharge. The President seems to be listening.