The “Renewed Nationalism” speech that President Obama delivered on Tuesday set important themes for his 2012 campaign and offered the president a chance to win back the vital center of American politics. His focus on fairness, income inequality and the plight of the middle class is his best chance to overcome what is, at best, a disappointing record on the key issues of the economy and the hemorrhaging national debt.
The irony is that those who praised Obama’s speech among the base of the Democratic Party — such as the evening cable TV show host who once called Bill Clinton a “Republican president” — missed how Clintonian it was.
Obama began by referring to the values of his grandparents, who “believed in an America where hard work paid off, responsibility was rewarded and anyone could make it if they tried — no matter who you were, where you came from, how you started out.”
These words were strikingly similar to President Clinton’s Democratic Leadership Council speech in Cleveland in 1990, when the then-Arkansas governor staked out the “New Democrat” positions, emphasizing middle-class values of working hard, playing by the rules and taking individual responsibility.
It wasn’t long into his speech that Obama praised Clinton’s economic record: “Now, keep in mind, when President Clinton first proposed these tax increases, folks in Congress predicted they would kill jobs and lead to another recession. Instead, our economy created nearly 23 million jobs and we eliminated the deficit.”
And just as Clinton focused on the middle class in his “New Democrat” philosophy, so too did Obama on Tuesday.
“This isn’t about class warfare. This is about the nation’s welfare. It’s about making choices that benefit not just the people who’ve done fantastically well over the last few decades, but that benefits the middle class, and those fighting to get to the middle class, and the economy of the whole.”
Note the fascinating addition of the words “not just” in the third sentence, before the phrase “the people who’ve done fantastically well over the last few decades.”
Obama is not at all sounding like the Occupy Wall Street movement — the “1 percent vs. the 99 percent” approach. He is explicitly — remarkably — saying that choices benefiting those who have done “fantastically well” are fine, but that the middle class wants those choices, too.
A second irony missed by the “hear-what-you-wish-for” left punditry in assessing the president’s speech was the significance of which Roosevelt Obama chose to emulate. It wasn’t Franklin, who did, in fact, use the rhetoric of class warfare, denouncing in his 1936 Democratic Convention acceptance speech the “economic royalists” who occupied the “palace of privilege” and whose “power” had to be “overthrown.” No, it was FDR’s older distant cousin, Theodore, whom the pre-eminent TR biographer, Yale Professor John Morton Blum, described as a pragmatic centrist who denounced the statist left as vigorously as he did the laissez-faire right.
Lest we forget, when Theodore Roosevelt ran for president in 1912 — two years after the “New Nationalism” speech that President Obama used as his inspiration and template — he literally ran as a third-party centrist, triangulating between the incumbent conservative Republican president, William Howard Taft, and the liberal Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson.
I loved Obama’s speech. But the most glaring and disappointing omission was his failure to endorse his own deficit-reduction commission’s recommendations, Simpson-Bowles. Indeed, he devoted less than one paragraph, just 29 words, to the issue of the $15 trillion national debt. This, in my view, is the central moral issue of our time. It is flat-out immoral that our generation has used credit cards to pay for today’s programs, benefits and two wars, leaving the bills to our children and grandchildren.
I fear that if President Obama continues to fail to lead on the national debt and deficits, he’ll risk his re-election, since there is a good chance he will lose the fiscally conservative, independent swing voters who will decide the election.
Lanny Davis is the principal in the Washington, D.C. law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, which specializes in strategic crisis management. He served as President Clinton’s Special Counsel in 1996-98 and as a member of President Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in 2006-07. He is the author of the forthcoming book to be published by Simon & Schuster, “Crisis Tales — Five Rules for Coping with Scandal in Business, Politics and Life.” He can be found on Facebook and Twitter (@LannyDavis).