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January 25, 2012 8:00 AM An appeal for fairness (and votes)

By Steve Benen

If President Obama’s State of the Union address was intended as a bookend to the December speech he delivered in Osawatomie, Kansas, it was a success. It was in Osawatomie that the president presented a vision based on populism, characterizing economic opportunity and justice “the defining issue of our time,” and last night, Obama did so again, using nearly-identical language.

After recalling his grandparents’ belief in “the basic American promise” that hard work led to economic security, the president argued, “The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive. No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important. We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”

By my count, Obama used the word “fair” or “fairness” 11 times in the address. Subtle it was not.

But there can be little doubt that populism suits him. Obama, to a degree that struck me as new, went after the banks rather aggressively, even proposing to pay for refinancing plan with “a small fee on the largest financial institutions,” which will in turn “give banks that were rescued by taxpayers a chance to repay a deficit of trust.”

The president also spoke extensively about the Buffett Rule: “Right now, because of loopholes and shelters in the tax code, a quarter of all millionaires pay lower tax rates than millions of middle-class households. Right now, Warren Buffett pays a lower tax rate than his secretary. Do we want to keep these tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans? Or do we want to keep our investments in everything else — like education and medical research; a strong military and care for our veterans? Because if we’re serious about paying down our debt, we can’t do both.”

All of this was cased as part of a larger vision that bolstered public investments, in the hopes of adding security for the middle class.

Was this a speech for the 99%? You bet it was.

But it was also an explicitly political speech. In an election year, the State of the Union is often considered the unofficial launch of an incumbent president’s campaign. Last night, this was so overt, I half expected the White House to put “Game On” on its home page.

The Republicans looking to replace Obama say the economy is worse now than in 2009. Oh yeah?

“In the last 22 months, businesses have created more than three million jobs. Last year, they created the most jobs since 2005. American manufacturers are hiring again, creating jobs for the first time since the late 1990s.”

Mitt Romney thinks we should have let Detroit go bankrupt and let the auto industry die Oh yeah?

“On the day I took office, our auto industry was on the verge of collapse. Some even said we should let it die. With a million jobs at stake, I refused to let that happen. In exchange for help, we demanded responsibility. We got workers and automakers to settle their differences. We got the industry to retool and restructure. Today, General Motors is back on top as the world’s number one automaker. Chrysler has grown faster in the U.S. than any major car company. Ford is investing billions in U.S. plants and factories. And together, the entire industry added nearly 160,000 jobs. We bet on American workers. We bet on American ingenuity. And tonight, the American auto industry is back.”

Romney recently argued , “Don’t try to stop the foreclosure process. Let it run its course and hit the bottom.” Oh yeah?

“[W]hile government can’t fix the problem on its own, responsible homeowners shouldn’t have to sit and wait for the housing market to hit bottom to get some relief.”

Romney whines a lot about class “envy.” Oh yeah?

“We don’t begrudge financial success in this country. We admire it. When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it’s not because they envy the rich. It’s because they understand that when I get tax breaks I don’t need and the country can’t afford, it either adds to the deficit, or somebody else has to make up the difference — like a senior on a fixed income; or a student trying to get through school; or a family trying to make ends meet. That’s not right. Americans know it’s not right. They know that this generation’s success is only possible because past generations felt a responsibility to each other, and to their country’s future, and they know our way of life will only endure if we feel that same sense of shared responsibility. That’s how we’ll reduce our deficit. That’s an America built to last.”

Republicans call tax justice “class warfare.” Oh yeah?

“Now, you can call this class warfare all you want. But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense.”

The GOP keeps insisting that the president is trying to “divide” Americans. Oh yeah?

“No one built this country on their own. This Nation is great because we built it together. This Nation is great because we worked as a team. This Nation is great because we get each other’s backs. And if we hold fast to that truth, in this moment of trial, there is no challenge too great; no mission too hard. As long as we’re joined in common purpose, as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, our future is hopeful, and the state of our Union will always be strong.”

This State of the Union speech made a deliberate effort to establish the foundation for the 2012 campaign. If these addresses are about letting a president make clear what he or she will fight for — and they are — Obama made it pretty clear last night that he intends to take a populist message to the electorate in the coming months.

If he sticks to it, I like his chances.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

Comments

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  • N. Bates on January 25, 2012 8:04 AM:

    Good points. Now we have to press Obama to keep his word and try and get this done (the good parts, at least.) Above all: watch carefully for when when he is trying, versus being obstructed.

    Yeah, get some "Btu" under that base!

  • c u n d gulag on January 25, 2012 8:05 AM:

    I thought Obama gave a good SOTU.

    He’s in campaign mode, and can say whatever he wants, because there’s no chance this Congress will let him do a single thing he talked about.

    I thought he had a few too may Conservative talking points.
    But, then, he’s still trying to reach out to the independents, of whom most already know which way they’ll lean in November. He needs to start shoring up his base, and there were a few good things in the SOTU.

    I didn’t stick around for Lil’ Mitch’s STFU response to the SOTU.

    Why would I?

    It was going to be their typical BS lying talking points. Whatever Obama’s for, they’re against – except the military. Only he doesn’t want to go into Iran, and they do.

  • walt on January 25, 2012 8:14 AM:

    Populism is frowned on by our Village overlords and Tory leather queens (Hey Andrew Sullivan!), but if it may be the one vehicle to rescue the national discourse from what amounts to racialized class warfare. We've had 40 years of this not-so-subtle attack on the commons and public square. We've privatized the American Dream in the process and made wealth for its own sake the one overarching good in society. It's hardly an accident that the middle class is now so stressed. You celebrate wealth not just with paeans to Croesus but with the necessary dog whistles. Let's have this war out in the open instead of behind the screen of socially-sanctioned bigotry and meanness.

  • Ladyhawke on January 25, 2012 8:21 AM:

    THOSE ARE THE FACTS

    I really like the way President Obama set the record straight in the beginning. This can't be said enough.

    -------------------

    It was wrong. It was irresponsible. And it plunged our economy into a crisis that put millions out of work, saddled us with more debt, and left innocent, hard-working Americans holding the bag. In the six months before I took office, WE LOST NEARLY FOUR MILLION JOBS. And we LOST ANOTHER FOUR MILLION before our policies were in full effect. Those are the facts.

    ---------------------

    The Blueprint for an America Built to Last

    http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2012/01/24/blueprint-america-built-last

  • DAY on January 25, 2012 8:22 AM:

    Well said, walt!

    I hope your "war out in the open" is the OWS folks, taking their movement to DC this Spring.
    "April is the cruellest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land."

  • Danp on January 25, 2012 8:26 AM:

    I think it was rather brilliant to throw out the 30% minimum tax number. It makes it a lot harder for Republicans to argue that he is calling for income equality. That plus the Romney tax release should help people understand the issue better.

  • chi res on January 25, 2012 8:28 AM:

    They know that this generation’s success is only possible because past generations felt a responsibility to each other

    IOW: Mitt, you know you only got what you got because of your daddy who, by the way, was a fairly good guy, unlike you!

  • SadOldVet on January 25, 2012 8:28 AM:

    This week's chutzpah award goes to Governor "Right to War on Workers" Daniels for declaring that Obama is divisive.

    During the same week in which he & the repukes running the state government in Indiana are forcing their "Right to (eliminate unions) Work" bill thru the state legislature.

    Actually, we know that it must be a really good thing because of the hundreds of paid advertisements endorsing it by lying about the results it will produce. Plus, we know that it must be really good thing because some unions are paying for 1/200ths as many advertisements opposing it. Damn good thing for freedom (to buy) of speech.

  • RepublicanPointOfView on January 25, 2012 8:45 AM:

    It is quite apparent that Obama must have been lying and misleading enormously during his SOTU speech!

    The liberal media USA Today provides an article titled Fact Check: Obama's State of the Union Address 2012. It addresses 5 statements by Obama and provides reality checks for each of them!

    With a major article titled Fact Check, it is easily observable that Obama must have lied to us!

    That the article actually never points to any inaccuracies in Obama's statements is not relevant! That the USA Today did not fact check Governor "Our Bitch" Mitch Daniels is also not relevant!

  • Daniel Kim on January 25, 2012 8:49 AM:

    I recall hearing a reference to banks writing a 'living will', because there will be no more bailouts. This may just be rhetoric, but I'd love to see some policy that makes it a priority to transition from 'too big to fail' into 'manageable damage control'.

  • espell on January 25, 2012 9:53 AM:

    "Daniel Kim on January 25, 2012 8:49 AM:

    I recall hearing a reference to banks writing a 'living will', because there will be no more bailouts. This may just be rhetoric, but I'd love to see some policy that makes it a priority to transition from 'too big to fail' into 'manageable damage control'

    Isn't this in Dodd-Frank? I am pretty sure this is in the bill that is yet another thing Republicans want to repeal.

  • Jon Marfelson on January 25, 2012 10:01 AM:

    “Now, you can call this class warfare all you want. But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense.”

    Actually, the billionaire pays much more than his secretary. He may pay a lower tax rate, but he pays much more in actual dollars.

    But Obama knew that. He also knows that most Americans don't know the difference, so he lied.

  • Grumpy on January 25, 2012 10:04 AM:

    ...this was so overt, I half expected the White House to put “Game On” on its home page.

    If so, wouldn't that be, like, totally illegal?

    As it is, lines like "as long as I am president..." felt out of place in a report that ostensibly is to "give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient."

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on January 25, 2012 10:41 AM:

    Jon Marfelson:Actually, the billionaire pays much more than his secretary. He may pay a lower tax rate, but he pays much more in actual dollars.

    But Obama knew that. He also knows that most Americans don't know the difference, so he lied.

    Are you serious? I'm only asking because a lot of commenters (RPOV) sarcastically parade right-side talking points only to parody the GOP. But, honestly, I can't get a feel of whether there's a tone incredulous snark or serious argument in your post... Anywho...

  • bdop4 on January 25, 2012 1:07 PM:

    Marfelson: "Actually, the billionaire pays much more than his secretary. He may pay a lower tax rate, but he pays much more in actual dollars."

    What's your point? That we should measure taxes in absolute terms rather than percentages?

    So by your reasoning, if someone makes 100X the income of another, but pays only 10X the amount in relative tax dollars, that's OK because it's a higher number.

    A six-year-old could see the flaw in that logic.

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