Obama and “the big picture”

 Whenever I read or hear criticism about a politician acting like a politician, I generally ignore it as inherently irrelevant if the originator has nothing else to say. The argument that a politician is ‘playing politics’ has gotten so watered down it’s become a stand in for more substantive critiques. That being said, I appreciate thoughtful commentary when I read it.

It’s in this vein of thought that I mention Ramesh Ponnuru‘s piece criticizing the President for connected unrelated policy objectives to unrelated ‘bad things,’ most notably the subject of inequality, (also found in this morning’s Linked and Loaded), in his speech yesterday in Osawatomie, Kansas. The President chose Osawatomie for it’s historical relevance to Theodore Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” speech in 1910. Ponnuru (rightly, in my opinion) dings Obama for framing our current economic malaise as primarily a result of economic inequality:

As before, a certain imprecision is needed to carry the argument through. “Now, this kind of inequality — a level that we haven’t seen since the Great Depression — hurts us all. When middle-class families can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that businesses are selling, when people are slipping out of the middle class, it drags down the entire economy from top to bottom.” Well sure: But that’s not a problem of inequality per se; that’s a problem of middle-class income decline. You can have falling inequality and falling middle-class income, and probably have over the last couple of years; you can also have the reverse.

Yet while I think Ponnuru’s critiques have merit (subjecting a politician’s words to a reality test is almost always appropriate), his column largely misses the point by excluding the obvious reasons for Obama’s focus on inequality. Which is to say that the more appropriate lens for viewing the President’s speech yesterday should be one of a politician seeking to frame his reelection campaign’s future narrative. In this regard, E.J. Dionne Jr.’s column in the Washington Post nails it:

The president’s speech on Tuesday in Osawatomie, Kan., the site of Theodore Roosevelt’s legendary “New Nationalism” speech 101 years ago, was the Inaugural address Obama never gave. It was, at once, a clear philosophical rationale for his presidency, a straightforward narrative explaining the causes of the nation’s travails, and a coherent plan of battle against a radicalized conservatism that now defines the Republican Party and has set the tone for its presidential nominating contest.

In drawing upon TR, Obama tied himself unapologetically to a defense of America’s long progressive and liberal tradition. The Republican Roosevelt, after all, drew his inspiration from the writer Herbert Croly, whose book “The Promise of American Life” can fairly be seen as the original manifesto for modern liberalism. Thus has the tea party’s radicalism encouraged a very shrewd politician to take on a task that Democrats have been reluctant to engage since Ronald Reagan’s ascendancy.

The President is clearly trying to set the tone for next year’s election. Inequality is not, of course, the root cause of our current economic stagnation. It’s merely a correlated feature of industrialized countries exacerbated by the current downturn. Indeed, some of the policies Obama advocates – removing tax incentives for wealthy income earners, entitlement and tax reform, etc… – is largely beside the point in a country suffering from a lack of aggregate demand. But if the President’s intends to run on “the big picture,” then it behoves him to weave together such disparate issues into a narrative that gives his supporters something worth fighting for.


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