Obama Navigates the New Political Landscape of Inequality

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Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

President Barack Obama speaks during a visit to Osawatomie High School in Kansas, Dec. 6, 2011.

The theme of President Obama’s speech on Tuesday in Osawatomie, Kans., was not wholly unfamiliar. Fairness, he argued, is a core American value that has been lost in the past decade of wage stagnation and economic crisis, and restoring that value to the middle class requires shared sacrifice — from the wealthy in the form of accepting higher taxes and from corporations in consenting to regulation. “In America,” he said, “we are greater together — when everyone engages in fair play, everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share.” It was not dissimilar to the core of a speech he gave before a joint session of Congress in September, urging that body to pass his latest stimulus proposals over Republican objections. But the events of the past few months have clearly informed Obama’s view of the political landscape heading into 2012, and his speech reflected as much.

Obama made no explicit attempt to tie his rhetoric to the Occupy movement — he name-checked them in the same breath as the Tea Party — and even sought a little distance in rephrasing a famous line from his 2004 convention speech: “Those aren’t Democratic or Republican values,” he said, “1% values or 99% values.  They’re American values, and we have to reclaim them.” But the influence was there. Three months ago Obama wasn’t talking about inequality. On Tuesday he was.

“This kind of inequality — a level we haven’t seen since the Great Depression — hurts us all,” he said, rattling off statistics about CEO pay and widening income gaps. He connected inequality to everything from tax reform to Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that allowed corporations to give unlimited donations to political-advocacy groups — “Inequality also distorts our democracy. It gives an outsized voice to the few who can afford high-priced lobbyists and unlimited campaign contributions, and runs the risk of selling out our democracy to the highest bidder.” — and folded it into his underlying premise on fairness:  “More fundamentally, this kind of gaping inequality gives lie to the promise at the very heart of America:  that this is the place where you can make it if you try.” And it was in those terms that he implicitly framed the next election. “This is the defining issue of our time,” Obama said. “This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class and all those who are fighting to get into the middle class.”

Defending the middle class against Republicans’ “you’re-on-your-own economics” is exactly the role in which Obama wants to cast himself, especially if, as Democrats suspect, Mitt Romney, a former private-equity firm executive, ends up as the Republican nominee. But as the occupant of the White House for the past three years, Obama couldn’t merely enumerate these trends. In addition, he tried to make the case that his first term has seen some progress toward solving the underlying issues. And it was in that vein that the President delivered one of  his deepest dives on financial reform since signing the Dodd-Frank regulatory overhaul into law in 2010. He touted the “living wills” that banks must now put together to explain to the government how they could be broken up and liquidated in the event of disaster, as well as the new powers granted to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to see those plans implemented. He talked up new brakes on risk and executive pay that Dodd-Frank tried to put in place, and castigated the GOP for blocking the nomination of a director for the newfangled Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, pledging to veto changes to that agency that Republicans have demanded. He even promised to introduce new legislation to stiffen penalties for financial fraud.

As one of the few major pillars of Obama legislative legacy that polls well, financial reform may well be key to mobilizing the disillusioned left while appealing to centrists. But the speech also offered an explicit recognition of one of the key political tensions of the moment: “The fact is,” he said, “this crisis has left a deficit of trust between Main Street and Wall Street.” Part of Obama’s challenge as he faces re-election next year is to harness that frustration and mistrust to his advantage. Tuesday’s speech in Osawatomie was a first step.