Obama on the (Class) Warpath

The president bets on redistribution to guarantee his reelection.

Republicans have yet to settle on a nominee, but President Obama has already decided whom he will run against: the rich.

If his populism-fueled speech this Tuesday in Osawatomie, Kansas, is any guide, Obama’s reelection platform will be centered on class warfare. In his speech, Obama conjured a grim image of middle class struggle. As he told it, a combination of unfettered free markets and “breathtaking greed” has created a dismal economic situation for the middle class, one that “gives lie to the promise that’s at the very heart of America:  that this is the place where you can make it if you try.” Instead, Obama suggested, this is a place where you can make it as long as you take from the rich, and that America’s problems could be solved if only “our wealthiest citizens would agree to contribute a little more.” For good measure, Obama also caricatured the Republicans as believing that “we are better off when everyone is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules.”

While the speech was well-received by the left, Obama’s attempt to cast himself as a paladin of the middle class is singularly implausible. Rail as he may about the hard lot of the middle class, Obama himself deserves much of the blame. After all, it was his administration that passed a largely failed $787 billion stimulus package that distributed taxpayer funds to an already privileged constituency in public sector unions. It was this same president that increased the national debt to $4 trillion dollars, a tab that the middle class and its children will be paying off for some time to come. And for all of his opportunistic attacks on Wall Street, Obama himself supported the bailouts for the banking industry. Exactly why the middle class should look to this president as its savior is unclear.

Indeed, beyond tax increases on the rich, Obama’s speech failed to offer any detailed policy proposals to help the middle class. Elevating style over substance, Obama instead made an elaborate attempt to liken himself to Theodore Roosevelt, to whose “New Nationalism” speech in Osawatomie in 1910 Obama’s remarks were intended as a not-so-subtle parallel.

Politically, the comparison was certainly convenient. An outspoken critic of the “great malefactors of wealth” who defected from the Republican Party for his own Progressive Party, Teddy Roosevelt has long been rhetorical fodder for Democrats who want to portray modern Republicans as beholden to the rich. Obama continued that partisan tradition, citing Roosevelt several times in the course of his indictment of Republicans. Obama also enlisted Roosevelt to preempt charges that he was engaging in class warfare, pointing out that Roosevelt himself was called a “radical, a socialist, and even a communist” after his “New Nationalism” speech.

What Obama did not mention is that this criticism of Roosevelt’s speech was not unjustified. As Jonah Goldberg observes in Liberal Fascism, his recent history of the American Left, Roosevelt’s New Nationalism speech could fairly be described as socialist. Among other things, Roosevelt avowed that “every man holds his property subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require it.” Such socialist overtones are hardly surprising, since Roosevelt was far more of supportive of centralized power than the modern Republican Party. It is also worth noting that Roosevelt’s critique of the wealthy took place in a starkly different context than Obama’s calls for higher taxes. At the time that Roosevelt delivered his speech, there was no income tax, and hence the argument that the rich were not paying their fair share was far more credible than it is today, when the top 1 percent pays nearly 40 percent of all federal income taxes.

Although Obama broke little new ground in his speech, it signals the Democrats’ latest efforts to spin the poor state of the economy in their favor. A case in point is the ongoing impasse over extending payroll tax cuts. Obama and his Democratic surrogates have seized on Republicans’ reluctance to pass the extension as proof that they favor the rich over the middle class. The reality is that Republicans do want to pass the extension. The reason it has stalled is that, unlike Democrats, Republicans want to make it permanent. In addition, they are unwilling to support a tax increase on higher earners to pay for the extension. At best, the payroll tax debate is a distraction from far more significant economic concerns.

All this smacks of desperation on Obama’s part. While unemployment has fallen slightly in recent months, even Obama’s economic advisors acknowledge that jobs are nor growing nearly fast enough. Nor, despite massive expenditures, have the president’s economic policies done much to improve the country’s economic fortunes.

It is a damning commentary on his administration that the best argument Obama can make for his reelection is to play the class-warfare card against Republicans. Absent some dramatic economic improvement, Obama may yet look back on his Osawatomie speech as a reminder of something that he and Teddy Roosevelt could well have in common: their failure to win an election the year after their respective speeches were delivered.