At Last, a “New” Presidential Candidate Progressives Can Support (Or So We Wish)

A fellow claiming to be President Barack Obama spoke about the economy today in Osawatomie, Kansas.  Although this person looked like President Obama, he did not sound like the centrist President we’ve seen in office the last three years. The person giving the speech spoke like a staunch progressive; the words he used were more like ones we’ve heard from  Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) or Representative Dennis Kuchinich (D-OH) than from any recent president of the United States.

If it indeed was the real President Obama, important questions need to be asked: Does he really believe what he said?  Who or what got to him? Why hasn’t he spoken like this before?  Is this a new political strategy to recapture his lost base? Will he act on these convictions?  Or is this another one of many elegant speeches  followed by inaction? Did the White House hire Paul Krugman or Robert Reich as a speechwriter?

Here are some of the amazing highlights of the President’s uncharacteristically progressive Kansas speech:

My grandparents served during World War II.  He was a soldier in Patton’s Army; she was a worker on a bomber assembly line.  And together, they shared the optimism of a nation that triumphed over the Great Depression and over fascism.  They believed in an America where hard work paid off, and responsibility was rewarded, and anyone could make it if they tried — no matter who you were, no matter where you came from, no matter how you started out.

And these values gave rise to the largest middle class and the strongest economy that the world has ever known.  It was here in America that the most productive workers, the most innovative companies turned out the best products on Earth.  And you know what?  Every American shared in that pride and in that success — from those in the executive suites to those in middle management to those on the factory floor. So you could have some confidence that if you gave it your all, you’d take enough home to raise your family and send your kids to school and have your health care covered, put a little away for retirement…

For most Americans, the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded.  Long before the recession hit, hard work stopped paying off for too many people.  Fewer and fewer of the folks who contributed to the success of our economy actually benefited from that success.  Those at the very top grew wealthier from their incomes and their investments — wealthier than ever before.  But everybody else struggled with costs that were growing and paychecks that weren’t — and too many families found themselves racking up more and more debt just to keep up.  

Now, for many years, credit cards and home equity loans papered over this harsh reality.  But in 2008, the house of cards collapsed.  We all know the story by now:  Mortgages sold to people who couldn’t afford them, or even sometimes understand them.  Banks and investors allowed to keep packaging the risk and selling it off.  Huge bets — and huge bonuses — made with other people’s money on the line.  Regulators who were supposed to warn us about the dangers of all this, but looked the other way or didn’t have the authority to look at all.

It was wrong.  It combined the breathtaking greed of a few with irresponsibility all across the system.  And it plunged our economy and the world into a crisis from which we’re still fighting to recover.  It claimed the jobs and the homes and the basic security of millions of people — innocent, hardworking Americans who had met their responsibilities but were still left holding the bag…

But, Osawatomie, this is not just another political debate. This is the defining issue of our time.  This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and for all those who are fighting to get into the middle class.  Because what’s at stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, secure their retirement.

Now, in the midst of this debate, there are some who seem to be suffering from a kind of collective amnesia.  After all that’s happened, after the worst economic crisis, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, they want to return to the same practices that got us into this mess.  In fact, they want to go back to the same policies that stacked the deck against middle-class Americans for way too many years.  And their philosophy is simple:  We are better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules.  

I am here to say they are wrong.  I’m here in Kansas to reaffirm my deep conviction that we’re greater together than we are on our own.  I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules. These aren’t Democratic values or Republican values.  These aren’t 1 percent values or 99 percent values.  They’re American values.  And we have to reclaim them.

You see, this isn’t the first time America has faced this choice.  At the turn of the last century, when a nation of farmers was transitioning to become the world’s industrial giant, we had to decide:  Would we settle for a country where most of the new railroads and factories were being controlled by a few giant monopolies that kept prices high and wages low?  Would we allow our citizens and even our children to work ungodly hours in conditions that were unsafe and unsanitary?  Would we restrict education to the privileged few?  Because there were people who thought massive inequality and exploitation of people was just the price you pay for progress.

Theodore Roosevelt disagreed.  He was the Republican son of a wealthy family.  He praised what the titans of industry had done to create jobs and grow the economy.  He believed then what we know is true today, that the free market is the greatest force for economic progress in human history.  It’s led to a prosperity and a standard of living unmatched by the rest of the world.

But Roosevelt also knew that the free market has never been a free license to take whatever you can from whomever you can.  (Applause.)  He understood the free market only works when there are rules of the road that ensure competition is fair and open and honest.  And so he busted up monopolies, forcing those companies to compete for consumers with better services and better prices.  And today, they still must.  He fought to make sure businesses couldn’t profit by exploiting children or selling food or medicine that wasn’t safe.  And today, they still can’t.    

And in 1910, Teddy Roosevelt came here to Osawatomie and he laid out his vision for what he called a New Nationalism.  “Our country,” he said, “…means nothing unless it means the triumph of a real democracy…of an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him.”

Now, for this, Roosevelt was called a radical.  He was called a socialist — — even a communist.  But today, we are a richer nation and a stronger democracy because of what he fought for in his last campaign:  an eight-hour work day and a minimum wage for women — insurance for the unemployed and for the elderly, and those with disabilities; political reform and a progressive income tax…  

Now, just as there was in Teddy Roosevelt’s time, there is a certain crowd in Washington who, for the last few decades, have said, let’s respond to this economic challenge with the same old tune.  “The market will take care of everything,” they tell us.  If we just cut more regulations and cut more taxes — especially for the wealthy — our economy will grow stronger.  Sure, they say, there will be winners and losers.  But if the winners do really well, then jobs and prosperity will eventually trickle down to everybody else.  And, they argue, even if prosperity doesn’t trickle down, well, that’s the price of liberty.

Now, it’s a simple theory.  And we have to admit, it’s one that speaks to our rugged individualism and our healthy skepticism of too much government.  That’s in America’s DNA.  And that theory fits well on a bumper sticker. But here’s the problem:  It doesn’t work.  It has never worked. It didn’t work when it was tried in the decade before the Great Depression.  It’s not what led to the incredible postwar booms of the ‘50s and ‘60s.  And it didn’t work when we tried it during the last decade. I mean, understand, it’s not as if we haven’t tried this theory.  

Remember that in those same years, thanks to some of the same folks who are now running Congress, we had weak regulation, we had little oversight, and what did it get us?  Insurance companies that jacked up people’s premiums with impunity and denied care to patients who were sick, mortgage lenders that tricked families into buying homes they couldn’t afford, a financial sector where irresponsibility and lack of basic oversight nearly destroyed our entire economy.

We simply cannot return to this brand of “you’re on your own” economics if we’re serious about rebuilding the middle class in this country.  We know that it doesn’t result in a strong economy.  It results in an economy that invests too little in its people and in its future.  We know it doesn’t result in a prosperity that trickles down.  It results in a prosperity that’s enjoyed by fewer and fewer of our citizens.   

Look at the statistics.  In the last few decades, the average income of the top 1 percent has gone up by more than 250 percent to $1.2 million per year.  I’m not talking about millionaires, people who have a million dollars.  I’m saying people who make a million dollars every single year.  For the top one hundredth of 1 percent, the average income is now $27 million per year.  The typical CEO who used to earn about 30 times more than his or her worker now earns 110 times more.  And yet, over the last decade the incomes of most Americans have actually fallen by about 6 percent.

Inequality also distorts our democracy. It gives an outsized voice to the few who can afford high-priced lobbyists and unlimited campaign contributions, and it runs the risk of selling out our democracy to the highest bidder. It leaves everyone else rightly suspicious that the system in Washington is rigged against them, that our elected representatives aren’t looking out for the interests of most Americans.  

But there’s an even more fundamental issue at stake.  This kind of gaping inequality gives lie to the promise that’s at the very heart of America:  that this is a place where you can make it if you try.  We tell people — we tell our kids — that in this country, even if you’re born with nothing, work hard and you can get into the middle class.  We tell them that your children will have a chance to do even better than you do.  That’s why immigrants from around the world historically have flocked to our shores…

So what does that mean for restoring middle-class security in today’s economy?  Well, it starts by making sure that everyone in America gets a fair shot at success.  The truth is we’ll never be able to compete with other countries when it comes to who’s best at letting their businesses pay the lowest wages, who’s best at busting unions, who’s best at letting companies pollute as much as they want.  That’s a race to the bottom that we can’t win, and we shouldn’t want to win that race.  Those countries don’t have a strong middle class.  They don’t have our standard of living.  

The race we want to win, the race we can win is a race to the top — the race for good jobs that pay well and offer middle-class security.  Businesses will create those jobs in countries with the highest-skilled, highest-educated workers, the most advanced transportation and communication, the strongest commitment to research and technology…

In the long term, we have to rethink our tax system more fundamentally.  We have to ask ourselves:  Do we want to make the investments we need in things like education and research and high-tech manufacturing — all those things that helped make us an economic superpower?  Or do we want to keep in place the tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans in our country?  Because we can’t afford to do both.  That is not politics.  That’s just math.   

Now, so far, most of my Republican friends in Washington have refused under any circumstance to ask the wealthiest Americans to go to the same tax rate they were paying when Bill Clinton was president…

This isn’t about class warfare.  This is about the nation’s welfare.  It’s about making choices that benefit not just the people who’ve done fantastically well over the last few decades, but that benefits the middle class, and those fighting to get into the middle class, and the economy as a whole…

We shouldn’t be weakening oversight and accountability.  We should be strengthening oversight and accountability.  I’ll give you another example.  Too often, we’ve seen Wall Street firms violating major anti-fraud laws because the penalties are too weak and there’s no price for being a repeat offender.  No more.  I’ll be calling for legislation that makes those penalties count so that firms don’t see punishment for breaking the law as just the price of doing business.

Read the full transcript here:

Boldface added by BPR editor
PUBLISHED IN OPEDNEWS.COM   12/8/2011
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This entry was posted in Barack Obama, Economics, economy, labor, politics, Republican Party and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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