The president in Kansas: A big speech that ended with a bigger question mark
If the first several years of any presidency can be characterized as a search by the chief executive for his identity as a leader, then it may be said that Barack Obama’s search reached a milestone yesterday. He found a voice in Osawatomie, Kansas. He framed the political debate in America in a way that ...
If the first several years of any presidency can be characterized as a search by the chief executive for his identity as a leader, then it may be said that Barack Obama’s search reached a milestone yesterday. He found a voice in Osawatomie, Kansas. He framed the political debate in America in a way that showed understanding and compassion. Whether this leads to an actual change in his behavior as a leader remains to be seen.
The president gave a powerful and impassioned speech that essentially turned on the idea that is fueling movement on both ends of the political spectrum in America today: that the US is no longer the land of opportunity that it once was, that powerful interests have corrupted the system and tilted the playing field in their direction. He assailed the inequality that has become the system’s signature for the past three decades and laid claim to the role of being the champion of the country’s forgotten, shrinking, strained middle class. Rebuffing forcefully the central Republican tenet that to speak of these problems is to foment class war, Obama asserted that seeking fairness is not class war but rather is the American way.
Call it canny politics or simply a fair characterization of America’s central challenge of the moment, the president stood up for the majority of Americans and effectively if not explicitly turned the argument back on the Republicans: there is class war in America and it has been waged successfully by elites at the expense of Main Street since the Reagan era. The cant that lower taxes for companies and the rich would somehow benefit someone other than companies and the rich was called out for the fraud that it is.
Going further, the president advanced his current agenda — notably the extension of the payroll tax cut — as a means of addressing this problem. This was where the speech, for all its promise and the undeniable quality of its delivery, raised the most questions. The problem was well framed. The call to action was clear. But the prescriptive portion of the address was so weak as to make one wonder anew as to whether the president was capable of or inclined to the major adjustments he persuasively argued were necessary.
The speech reminded us both of candidate Obama, the champion of change, and of President Obama, who has been tentative in his challenges to the status quo … or worse. The speech in Kansas yesterday demanded the end of the Bush tax cuts, a major investment in American infrastructure, the embrace of sweeping changes to ensure economic vitality such as those proposed by the Simpson Bowles Commission, real aid for American homeowners, and Wall Street reforms with far more scope and far sharper teeth than Dodd Frank.
Will the man who delivered yesterday’s speech enter a new phase of his presidency in which he is willing to go to the mat for such changes, alienate rich donors, offend some in the Wall Street-Washington establishment with whom he has been close throughout his career? Is he the gutsy guy who broke through racial barriers in America and defied the Democratic political establishment on his way up? Or is he the professor, the man in the bubble at the White House, the world’s most conservative liberal? A change agent or a weathervane?
As with many Obama speeches and even with his books, this one was a great source of hope, inspiring even. But at this point in America’s existence we don’t need a president who sees hope as audacious. We need one who sees it as a risk. We don’t need change we can believe in. We need change we can see.
Yesterday could have been a watershed and the beginning of the president’s march to a second term. Or … if in the months ahead we continue to see timidity with regard to the big reforms we need, cat-and-mouse games with the Hill, the White House negotiating with itself before it capitulates to the right on the Hill … then yesterday might be seen as the last great speech of a man who only had an opening act, a guy who could set the stage, raise expectations, and then have to step aside to let someone else deliver the goods.
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