Obama’s speech tonight was a bit short on the sort of grandiose and stirring populist oratory we heard in his Kansas speech; today’s effort was long and attempted to check a lot of boxes. But on balance he laid out a pretty solid set of narratives that, if he and Democrats have their way, will frame the reelection campaign to his advantage.
The biggest news in Obama’s speech was his call for a 30 percent minimum tax on millionaires. This was the first time Obama made his call for a “Buffett Rule” specific, and he paired this with a welcome and extensive rebuttal of the GOP charge that he’s engaged in class warfare and the politics of “envy." It’s mystifying that Republicans continue making this argument when Obama has so clearly gained the upper hand on fair taxation. It’s stranger still when you consider that Republicans appear close to nominating the walking embodiment of everything that Americans think is unfair and rigged in favor of the wealthy about our economy and tax system.
Obama also beefed up this part of his argument with another call for tougher laws against Wall Street recklessness and a shout out to his new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, implicitly casting the GOP as the party of unfettered free market capitalism and Dems as the party of sensible oversight and judicious consumer protection.
Indeed, Obama not only argued that inequality and the precarious state of the middle class are the “central challenge of our time,” but that this state of affairs flowed from a set of specific policy choices and priorities that Republicans would restore if they get back into power.
And Obama tried to tell the larger story of the last decade. He recapped the larger trends, such as the decline of manufacturing, that predated the crisis; the Wall Street recklessness that caused the “house of cards” to collapse; and the profound magnitude of the disaster he inherited. In a direct rebuttal to the core GOP claim that his policies have failed, he noted that four million jobs were lost on his watch before those policies kicked in — an argument he’ll have to sharpen in the months ahead.
The speech was also heavy on the sort of populist economic nationalism that might play well in struggling Rust Belt communities, calling for a “basic minimum tax” on multinationals that would be geared towards giving companies disincentives to outsource and incentives to hire here. Obama alluded to John F. Kennedy: “Ask yourselves what you can do to bring jobs back to your country, and your country will do everything we can to help you succeed.”
Obama’s claim that the union is “getting stronger” was probably his best solution to a core dilemma — how do you make the case that things are improving without giving short shrift to people’s ongoing suffering? He built on it with this line: “We’ve come too far to turn back now.”
All these strands were woven in to a larger tale that goes something like this: When I took office, we were on the verge of absolute catastrophe. Though there’s a long way to go, we’ve slowly begun to turn things around. As bleak as things look now, the future will ultimately brighten, as long as we continue to invest in ourselves and resist the urge to upset the fragile recovery by panicking, giving up on the potential of technological innovation and collective action, and returning to the policies that caused this disaster in the first place. It’s not an easy story to tell, but that’s the reelection narrative, and it kicked off tonight.