We’re headed into an election that will feature the clearest ideological divide since Goldwater-Johnson. Romney and Gingrich and Santorum paint America on the brink of ruin — about to “descend” into becoming an “entitlement society, not an opportunity society,” a “European welfare state,” a “socialist,” not a free market nation.” This is the predicate for recycling the failed bromides of the right: tax cuts for the rich, more military spending, more corporate trade, more deregulation, and cuts in everything else from Medicare and Social Security to education and child nutrition.
For many months, the president chose not to engage this battle of ideas in the futile pursuit of bipartisan agreement. That began to change last Fall, when the President finally put forth his American Jobs Act and stumped for it across the country.
Now, in his recent speech to the United Auto Workers, the president is beginning to draw the line — and develop the themes that will help frame the election. The entire speech is worth reading. Republicans immediately accused the president of delivering a campaign speech. Shocking, gambling in Casablanca. Here’s the core of the argument:
President Obama: “Let me tell you, I keep on hearing these same folks talk about values all the time. You want to talk about values? Hard work — that’s a value. (Applause.) Looking out for one another — that’s a value. The idea that we’re all in it together, and I’m my brother’s keeper and sister’s keeper — that’s a value. (Applause.)
They’re out there talking about you like you’re some special interest that needs to be beaten down. Since when are hardworking men and women who are putting in a hard day’s work every day — since when are they special interests? Since when is the idea that we look out for one another a bad thing?
I remember my old friend, Ted Kennedy — he used to say, what is it about working men and women they find so offensive? (Laughter.) This notion that we should have let the auto industry die, that we should pursue anti-worker policies in the hopes that unions like yours will buckle and unravel -– that’s part of that same old “you are on your own” philosophy that says we should just leave everybody to fend for themselves; let the most powerful do whatever they please. They think the best way to boost the economy is to roll back the reforms we put into place to prevent another crisis, to let Wall Street write the rules again.
They think the best way to help families afford health care is to roll back the reforms we passed that’s already lowering costs for millions of Americans. (Applause.) They want to go back to the days when insurance companies could deny your coverage or jack up your rates whenever and however they pleased. They think we should keep cutting taxes for those at the very top, for people like me, even though we don’t need it, just so they can keep paying lower tax rates than their secretaries.
Well, let me tell you something. Not to put too fine a point on it — they’re wrong. (Laughter.) They are wrong. (Applause.) That’s the philosophy that got us into this mess. We can’t afford to go back to it. Not now.
We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’ve got a long way to go before everybody who wants a good job can get a good job. We’ve got a long way to go before middle-class Americans fully regain that sense of security that’s been slipping away since long before this recession hit. But you know what, we’ve got something to show — all of you show what’s possible when we pull together.
Over the last two years, our businesses have added about 3.7 million new jobs. Manufacturing is coming back for the first time since the 1990s. Companies are bringing jobs back from overseas. (Applause.) The economy is getting stronger. The recovery is speeding up. Now is the time to keep our foot on the gas, not put on the brakes. And I’m not going to settle
for a country where just a few do really well and everybody else is struggling to get by. (Applause.)
We’re fighting for an economy where everybody gets a fair shot, where everybody does their fair share, where everybody plays by the same set of rules. We’re not going to go back to an economy that’s all about outsourcing and bad debt and phony profits. We’re fighting for an economy that’s built to last, that’s built on things like education and energy and manufacturing. Making things, not just buying things — making things that the rest of the world wants to buy. And restoring the values that made this country great: hard work and fair play, the chance to make it if you really try, the responsibility to reach back and help somebody else make it, too — not just you. That’s who we are. That’s what we believe in. (Applause.)
The president is still too optimistic about how far we’ve come. America is not back, and folks are likely to think he’s out of touch when he says so. More emphasis on fighting to keep us going is vital since we’re headed into a brutal debate about pre-mature austerity that could be ruinous to any recovery. And its easy to be cynical about presidential rhetoric as opposed to performance.
That said, America is going to face a big choice this election. And the president is starting to define it in far more compelling terms than the right.