December 7, 2011

It’s fascinating that the famous Teddy Roosevelt speech President Obama chose to channel Tuesday in Kansas ultimately led TR to the strongest third-party run in the 20th century. In that 1912 election he bolted the GOP, got 27 percent of the vote, sank his rival William Howard Taft (23 percent), and threw the election to Woodrow Wilson, who became president with a 43 percent plurality.

But beyond noting this curiosity, I went through a three-phase reaction to a speech plainly designed to frame the campaign.

My first thought was: How fantastic that Obama is giving voice to extreme inequality as a defining issue, articulating the way it corrodes our society, corrupts our politics and betrays American ideals.

My second thought was: Bill Clinton could have given this same basic speech. And in fact he did, hundreds of times, when contrasting his vision with the GOP’s in 1995 and 1996. People who worked hard and played by the rules were no longer sure of a place in the middle class with decent health care, college for the kids and a secure retirement. Fifteen years later the problems for most Americans are the same, except in the interim we had a big housing and financial bubble go bust. So instead of just this long-term economic cancer (brought on by global competition and rapid technological change), we’ve had a massive economic heart attack to boot.

This sense of déjà vu led to the third and most depressing thought. It has to do with what former senator Bill Bradley once described to me as the Democrats’ pattern of endlessly offering “the big rhetoric” followed by “the little mouse.”

What Bradley meant was that Democrats knew that society’s modern challenges called for bold government action. But Democrats didn’t trust that voters would support policies equal to the scale of the problem. So Democrats played make-believe, acting as if their grand goals could be achieved through miniature initiatives. The paradigmatic example was Bill Clinton’s $200-million-a-year school-to-work measure that, according to one wit, “helped dozens, if not hundreds, of people before being killed.”

Think about the challenges Obama laid out in Kansas. Pervasive economic insecurity. The erosion of upward mobility. Lagging schools. All in the context of a fast-changing global economy. It’s clear this new world demands bold, creative responses. But that’s not what Obama is offering.

If this is what the president calls “the defining issue of our time,” and “a make or break moment for the middle class,” what is he summoning us to march for?

A modest payroll tax cut for a year? And a return (pretty please) to Clinton-era tax rates?

Really? How about wage subsidies ample enough to assure that full -ime work delivers the equivalent of at least $10 an hour plus basic health coverage?

And if health care is insecure, then why not move past our archaic employer-based insurance system, which doesn’t make sense for companies or individuals in a global era?

On education, Obama says don’t lay off teachers. Demand more of schools. Then make college more affordable and get more kids into science and engineering (How? He doesn’t say).

Is this really the best America can do? How about luring a new generation of top talent to teaching (as high-performing countries do) by paying the best teachers up to $150,000 a year? Or making a bachelor’s degree free for hardworking students who keep their grades up?

And pay for such steps (and shrink the deficit over time) by slowing the excessive growth of Medicare and Medicaid, so Uncle Sam isn’t only bankrolling consumption for seniors but also investing in the future.

TR called in 1910 for income taxes, estate taxes, child labor laws, corporate regulation, and direct election of senators – all truly bold ideas at the time.

The White House says this wasn’t a moment for details but for big themes. But Bill Bradley’s right: We’ve had big themes from Democrats for 20 years. Being great on diagnosis but short on cure doesn’t cut it anymore. That is, if you’re actually trying to renew the country, not just to win an election.

(Health care remains the great exception to this president’s rhetoric-reality gap. Obama deserves great credit for aiming high here despite the obstacles).

I saw “The Book of Mormon” in New York Tuesday night after Obama’s speech. Among the show’s myriad pleasures was a song called “I Believe,” in which one of the main characters belts outs articles of faith he “believes” as a Mormon in ways that comically defy reason. Still, it’s clear the act of faith is itself redeeming.

That’s where the president is today. He “believes” in ringing affirmations of progressive principles – equal opportunity, upward mobility, fairness. But he doesn’t have the grit to propose policies that could fix what ails us. Because he doesn’t have faith that he can get to 50 percent plus one if he did.

Is it true that Americans don’t have the appetite for more? Maybe the only way to find out is for someone to take the route Roosevelt himself took and run an agenda-setting campaign outside the conventional boundaries of debate. TR’s 27 percent in 2012 didn’t carry the day, but his ideas – and the constituency he helped forge for them – ultimately transformed the country.

Matt Miller, a co-host of public radio’s “Left, Right & Center,” writes a weekly online column for The Post. His e-mail address is mattino2@gmail.commattino2@gmail.com.