Thursday, December 15, 2011

Obama at Osawatomie: Pale Comparison

The stage was set at Osawatomie, Kansas last week for a presidential address on the economy, but not just any address.  Doris Kearns Goodwin, during a star gig on “Meet The Press” in late November, had dutifully cast the appeal for Obama to channel the Progressive side of Theodore Roosevelt and mirabile dictu, the White House produced the speech, wrestled the enormous logistic requirements into place, notified the usual suspects in the MSM, and set the stage for this major presidential address in a small remote town of 4400, all in the space of a week.  Even the most credulous among us would be forgiven of suspecting that Doris was a shill to spread the Word.

The connection of the great TR to the small town is its historical value as the site of his “New Nationalism” speech delivered in 1910 (in case the media didn’t catch on to the connection, the White House pumped sunshine into any outlet available).  Obama, with his handlers and handmaidens, thus continue the deliberate habit of trying to link him to other presidents of no little accomplishment, such as Garry Wills worshipful attempt to link him to Lincoln, or the cover story in Time equating him to FDR, or his attempt to replicate the campaign of Truman against a ‘Do-Nothing Congress’ (even one that for the first two years was entirely run by Democrats).

And others are cheerleaders and sheepherders, such as Robert Reich in his declaration that this is Obama’s “most important economic speech of his presidency” and, in case you don’t catch on by the end of the article, “It lays out the basis for what could be the platform Obama will run on in 2012 – increasing taxes on the rich, investing in the rest us [sic], requiring corporations and Wall Street banks that reap benefits from being in America create [sic] good jobs for Americans, and protecting our democracy from being corrupted by money – a new New Nationalism.”  This is in line as a corollary to the praises of the Sophisticati about the "greatest race speech ever": Obama's "A More Perfect Union" speech in March 2008.  (Here we can apply the Rule of the Broadway Musical -- if you are singing the tunes you heard the night before when showering the next morning, the show is a hit.  Can anyone recite at will a line from the speech?  There is nothing remotely approaching anything that Martin Luther King said.)  These sycophants at least provide fodder for footnotes in the next edition of Frank J Fleming's satire of Obama: The Greatest President in the History of Everything.

Obama’s run in 2008 was a transcendent appeal to ‘hope and change’, and he ran an emotional appeal to voters with such gauzy declarations as “We are the people we have been waiting for” – whatever that means – as well as promises that oceans would recede and we would care for the sick (comments delivered with “profound humility”).  He was able to steamroll the Republicans, and the Clinton Democrats too, of course, with only occasional slips, like wanting to “fundamentally transform America”.  (Really?  Are we that bad?)  The voters now have seen the change that he has wrought, and most particularly the change that he hasn’t, like failing in improving the economy or even mitigating its further fall.  After three years, even the most die-hard of his apologists recognise that blaming George W Bush for everything only goes so far, and we are past even that.  Other promises he simply had to abandon as quickly as possible, like a “net spending cut”.  But now he shifts into the offensive.

Obama’s forced connection to Teddy Roosevelt tries to play to what remains of the popular notion of the hero of San Juan Hill and his presidency, but it is instead to a snapshot of a different period, when he had moved on from the days of “If an American is to amount to anything he must rely upon himself, and not upon the State; he must take pride in his own work, instead of sitting idle to envy the luck of others.”  Colonel Roosevelt (as he preferred to be called then) had retired in 1909 from his time as President but chaffed at the difficulties of his successor, William Howard Taft.  The Osawatomie speech was Roosevelt’s most radical, proclaiming his eventual shift from the Republicans of the time to the Progressive (‘Bull Moose’) Party, and Roosevelt intoned its purpose: “To destroy this invisible Government, to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day.”  (Left unsaid is the fact that by the election of 1912, Teddy was already souring on the pace and direction of the Progressive Party.)  Obama’s heavy-handed symbolism in his oration relies on continuing to forge a philosophical link from this speech to the Occupy Wall Street movement without having to say as much, all connected to a long run-up to battle the expected Republican challenger in 2012 – Mitt Romney, rich businessman.  Thus, this is the opening salvo of the Obama campaign, and introduces his campaign themes.  (One other historical link for which I pray is that Roosevelt – who I genuinely admire even considering these otherwise unique political circumstances – went on to lose the next election while tearing apart his own party.)

Obama’s speech is a compilation of liberal bromides, one after another, listed out in serial severity after the predictable and familiar collection of his standard shtick of introductory comments.  One departure was a slip at the very beginning (perhaps he was distracted from his teleprompter): “Well, it is great to be back in the state of Tex – (laughter) – state of Kansas.”  (Mr President, is that the 56th or 57th state?)  If Rick Perry had said that, it would still be the topic of conversation throughout the media.  But then that’s to be expected.

For example, there is one particularly telling passage: “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.”  Again, noble sounding words, but do we truly negate individualism in favour of the collective approach?  Who picks the team?  What constitutes a fair shot?  How much is a fair share, and for whom?  What are the rules, and who writes them?  This is one and the same with the old phrase of ‘that guy is a real team player’.  Depending on who says it, it easily translates into ‘he does exactly what I tell him to do’. 

Michael Barone explains it well as always:

Democrats like to think of themselves as the party of smart people. And over the last four years we have heard countless encomiums, and not just from Democrats, of the intellect and perceptiveness of Barack Obama. But a reading of the text of Obama’s December 6 speech at Osawatomie, Kansas, billed as one of his big speeches of the year, shows him to be something like the opposite.
Even by the standards of campaign rhetoric, this is a shockingly shoddy piece of work. You can start with his intellectually indefensible caricature of Republican philosophy: “We are better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules.” Or his simple factual inaccuracy: “The wealthiest Americans are paying the lowest taxes in over half a century.” Or his infantile economic analysis, blaming job losses on the invention of the automated teller machine (they’ve been around for more than four decades, Mr. President, and we’ve had lots of job growth during that time) and the Internet.
Obama carries on this blithe indifference to facts, such as when he is dismissive of a market economy:
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. (Laughter) But here’s the problem: It doesn’t work. It has never worked. (Applause) 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.
But it did work. It worked under Coolidge, it worked under Kennedy, it worked under Reagan and Bush the younger.  At the state level, it has worked there too, like under Pataki in New York and Perry in Texas.  The periods of reduction of taxes necessitated turn-around times that were tough, and that is where Obama has his focus, but the freedom of the market catches on and accelerates to the better, until it is acted upon by an outside force (which is the case in any economy), such as the New Deal or the recent bursting of the housing bubble.

Democrats continue to bemoan the ‘Crony Capitalism’ of Wall Street, even though the Democrats receive the lion’s share of political contributions from the major ‘special interests’ such as unions.  The direct influence of the White House and the Democrats into such failed enterprises as Solyndra, despite the Cassandra protests within the administration, yields to my mind a more likely term of Crony Socialism.  Dr Krauthammer weighs in as well:

A country spending twice as much per capita on education as it did in 1970 with zero effect on test scores is not underinvesting in education. It’s mis-investing. As for federally directed spending on innovation – like Solyndra? Ethanol? The preposterously subsidized, flammable Chevy Volt?
Our current economic distress is attributable to myriad causes: globalization, expensive high-tech medicine, a huge debt burden, a burst housing bubble largely driven by precisely the egalitarian impulse that Obama is promoting (government aggressively pushing “affordable housing” that turned out to be disastrously unaffordable), an aging population straining the social safety net. Yes, growing inequality is a problem throughout the Western world. But Obama’s pretense that it is the root cause of this sick economy is ridiculous. . . .
In Kansas, Obama lamented that millions “are now forced to take their children to food banks.” You have to admire the audacity. That’s the kind of damning observation the opposition brings up when you’ve been in office three years. Yet Obama summoned it to make the case for his reelection!
Why? Because, you see, he bears no responsibility for the current economic distress. It’s the rich. And, like Horatius at the bridge, Obama stands with the American masses against the soulless plutocrats.
This is populism so crude that it channels not Teddy Roosevelt so much as Hugo Chavez.
Obama conveniently ignores some salient differences between the Progressives of Roosevelt’s era and the self-titled Progressives of today, and academics aren’t leaping for a chance to explain.  Among other things, Roosevelt and his followers were exceptionally pro-American (as in American Exceptionalism), supportive of the military and the family, strict constructionalists in both the Congress and the courts, stewards of the environment to our benefit, in favour of an active foreign policy, and pro-gun ownership.  Their calls then for government intervention into Wall Street were based on the fact that there were no real controls at all at the time, nor was there an income tax or any safety net for the poor.

One can use another historical tie to Osawatomie other than the attempt to link Obama to Theodore Roosevelt: it was also the site of a pre-Civil War battle in 'Bleeding Kansas', involving John Brown.  This is the same John Brown who would kill his opponents by hacking them to death with a broadsword.  This forced comparison to TR would seem to me to be a verbal equivalent directed against the audience.

Obama is lining up his forces for the attack that we know is coming.  He cannot run on his record nor can he run on his policies.  You hear nothing of them in his campaign ads, nor will you.

That’s all he has.

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