How does free enterprise fit into President Obama’s vision for America?

Daniel Rothschild Director of State Projects, R Street Institute
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Picking Osawatomie, Kansas as the site for an address is the kind of over-the-top symbolism that would make even Aaron Sorkin blush.

In 1910, Theodore Roosevelt, then a year and a half out of the White House, used the small town as the location to announce a detailed plan for the philosophy he called “New Nationalism,” an expansive progressive agenda, one he hoped would form the basis of the platform of his own Republican Party.

By contrast, President Obama’s speech this afternoon in Osawatomie was glaringly lacking in specifics. Instead, it was a motley assortment of bumper sticker meditations on the importance of education and the scourge of income inequality, and appeals to increase “fairness” in the tax system (as if anyone claims to want an “unfair” tax system).

In short, it was a typical political stump speech favored by politicians of both parties: long on rhetoric and short on policy, based around a potted Whiggish version of American history.

This is no surprise — the president is, after all, a politician, and he’s asking the American people for a second term as president. But it does represent a missed opportunity for him to articulate a clear vision for his beliefs about free enterprise, markets, and competition.

Obama gave the requisite nod to free markets, calling them “the greatest force of economic progress in human history.” But he gives no sense of how he sees free markets and free enterprise — as they actually exist, not in dystopian fiction or Michael Moore movies — as interacting with any other part of his vision for the United States.

The role of free enterprise in American culture is a defining issue of the day. None of the major policy questions that dominate the public discussion — tax rates, the deficit, broadband, roads — can be understood without a clear vision of the proper relationship between the government and the private sector. And this requires a theory of free enterprise. If the president is going to campaign on a sharply populist platform, he needs to articulate how free enterprise and free markets fit in with his vision of America and economic growth and prosperity.

We get some sense of this from the occupations and businesses he mentions in his speech. The picture he paints is largely one of an America long gone by. He acknowledges the “painful disruptions” of globalization and the information revolution, discussing the factory workers, bank tellers, phone operators, and travel agents whose jobs have been replaced. These are changes to be grieved, not part of a larger trend of growth leading to increased prosperity and opportunity.

Fortunately, the president’s rhetoric doesn’t rise to the level of John Kerry’s faux-populist attacks on “Benedict Arnold CEOs.” But it is based on an us-versus-them outlook in which there’s basically a limited amount of wealth, in which the “big banks” and “one percent” conspire against voters. “Inequality” gets twice as many mentions in the speech as “growth.”

Most unfortunately, the president doesn’t talk about whether markets and free enterprise are just a necessary evil in order to create a tolerable level of economic growth or whether they matter on a deeper level. Should American free enterprise be a staid, shallow system where there’s little risk and little reward, one that’s managed, clean, and rationally administered, one that plods along reliably? In other words, should it be free enterprise in name but democratic socialism in practice?

Or does the president view free enterprise as a robust and moral system in which people have the freedom to try new ideas, work hard, and profit if they succeed, a system in which competition gives people the opportunity to earn their own success, in which individual opportunity flourishes? Does he view free enterprise as a system that enables people to build their own lives, or one that inevitably results in corrupt crony capitalism? Can free enterprise foster hard work and playing by the rules — the values that permeated the president’s remarks — or is it inimical to those values?

In some policy areas — tax rates and spending on infrastructure, for instance — it’s clear what President Obama believes. But on the question of the role of free enterprise in American culture, it’s not clear what he — or many leading politicians in either party — truly believe, and how this impacts their views on policy.

It’s an important debate to have. But we’re not going to get there through slogans.

Daniel M. Rothschild is coalitions director at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.