President Obama channels Elizabeth Warren in Kansas speech

at 03:52 PM ET, 12/06/2011

In a nearly hour-long speech that had a distinctly political feel to it, President Obama borrowed rhetorically from Massachusetts Senate candidate — and liberal heroine — Elizabeth Warren to make his case on the economy in Kansas today.


U.S. President Barack Obama announces consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren (R) as special adviser leading the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington September 17, 2010. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Warren, who helped Obama create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, drew national headlines earlier this fall when she insisted that “there is nobody in this country who got rich on his own” as a way to rebut charges that Democrats were engaging in class warfare (The video of Warren’s remarks has been viewed more than 807,000 on You Tube.)

There were echoes of that we-are-all-in-this together economic philosophy everywhere in Obama’s speech today.

“This isn’t about class warfare, this is about the nation’s welfare,” he said at one point. At another, he insisted that “rebuilding this economy based on fair play, a fair shot and a fair share will require all of us to see the stake we have in each other’s success.”

This focus on fairness is part of a broader Democratic messaging strategy aimed at turning the economic debate in 2012 from one that asks the question “are you better off than you were four years” to one focused on inequality and how how entrenched (Republican) interests are doing everything to widen the gap between the haves and have nots.

“The number one fact of our political economy for the last decade is declining middle class incomes,” New York Senator — and Democratic message guru — Chuck Schumer told the Plum Line’s Greg Sargent recently. “When the American Dream is no longer a virtual certainty to most Americans, it becomes a different country...Inequality is a driving issue. What highlights inequality is middle class incomes declining.”

(Worth noting: Obama mentioned the words “middle class” 18 times in his speech today; he said either “fair” or “fairness” 15 times.)

Warren has been on the leading edge of pushing this economic inequality argument on the campaign trail — and, in so doing, has become a national liberal phenomenon.

Warren raised more than $3 million for her challenge to Sen. Scott Brown (R) in just a few weeks and even cynical Democratic strategists speak in awed tones about the level of volunteer interest that she is generating.

We’ve theorized in this space previously that the energy (and money) surrounding Warren is borne of the sense among liberals that she is, more so than Obama himself, the natural heir to the message that the president ran and won on in 2008.

As we wrote in our piece detailing the Obama-to-Warren connection:

Warren is to the — for lack of a better word — “professional left” what they thought (and hoped) Obama would be when he was elected, a true believer not willing to compromise on core principles of the party.
But there’s more to it. Warren has an edge — rhetorically if not in her relatively unassuming personality — that Obama lacks and that some within the party crave.
“The Republicans have been waging class warfare for a generation at the very least and [Warren] is more willing to call them out on it,” said one senior Democratic consultant granted anonymity to compare the two politicians. “Obama spoke more to hope. She speaks more to anger.”

Obama’s speech today was as close to fiery (if not angry) populism as he has ever been — or likely will ever get it.

The repeated emphasis on the unfairness of a system that, Obama insisted, Republicans are defending, and on the need for there to be a better understanding of the interconnectedness of every person in the American economy suggests that the president and his political team may be taking a page from Warren’s playbook.

Of course, there are limits to how far channeling Elizabeth Warren can get Obama. Massachusetts is not exactly a swing state and while Warren can win in 2012 simply by winning over Democrats to her side, Obama needs to convince wavering independents in places like Ohio, Virginia and Florida.

The White House clearly believes this “fairness” doctrine is a message that not only resonates with the Democratic base but also one that can persuade the political (and economic) middle of the country, however.

If it works, President Obama may well have Elizabeth Warren to thank for solving — or at least mitigating — Democrats’ struggle to find a winning message on the economy heading into next November.


 
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