In 2004, Obama gave a keynote speech at the Democratic Convention. The speech didn’t just launch his career as a national politician — it foretold the message that would carry him through the 2008 election.
The theme was political division. “Even as we speak,” Obama said, “there are those who are preparing to divide us.” And then came Obama’s famous formulation, the one that launched a thousand pastel-colored posters: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.” He even talked of the “audacity of hope.”
Yesterday, in Kansas, Obama gave a speech foretelling his 2012 campaign. The theme this time is economic division — perhaps better known as inequality.
“For most Americans, the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded,” Obama said. “Long before the recession hit, hard work stopped paying off for too many people. Fewer and fewer of the folks who contributed to the success of our economy actually benefited from that success. Those at the very top grew wealthier from their incomes and their investments — wealthier than ever before. But everybody else struggled with costs that were growing and paychecks that weren’t — and too many families found themselves racking up more and more debt just to keep up.”
“There are some who seem to be suffering from a kind of collective amnesia. After all that’s happened, after the worst economic crisis, the worst financial 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 stacked the deck against middle-class Americans for way too many years. And their philosophy is simple: We are better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules. I am here to say they are wrong.”
And then he updated the formulation that won him the presidency in the first place: “These aren’t Democratic values or Republican values. These aren’t 1 percent values or 99 percent values. They’re American values.” Actually, he updated it twice. “This isn’t about class warfare. This is about the nation’s welfare.”
There’s much to say about this speech. It is, for instance, Obama’s clearest attempt to weave an economic narrative that can carry him through the campaign. But perhaps the most obvious thing to say about it is that this isn’t Obama’s narrative. It’s Occupy Wall Street’s narrative. The speech is substantially about inequality. Consider the facts and figures Obama chose to include:
– “The average income of the top 1 percent has gone up by more than 250 percent to $1.2 million per year…For the top one hundredth of 1 percent, the average income is now $27 million per year. The typical CEO who used to earn about 30 times more than his or her worker now earns 110 times more. And yet, over the last decade the incomes of most Americans have actually fallen by about 6 percent.”
– “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 had fallen to around 40 percent. 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 percent.”
– “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 percent. This isn’t even like the early ‘80s, when the top tax rate was about 70 percent. Under President Clinton, the top rate was only about 39 percent. 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 percent. One percent.”
Inequality has not been a major theme in Obama’s economic addresses over the last year. But it looks like it will be the major theme in his reelection campaign. And it’s hard to believe that’s not in response to Occupy Wall Street’s success in turning the national conversation towards inequality.
Which sets us up for an unusually populist election — on both sides. Republicans have taken their message from the Tea Party. Democrats are borrowing their theme from Occupy Wall Street. In both cases, citizen-driven grassroots groups are setting the agenda. So all together now: Mic check!