Greg Sargent called the speech Obama gave today in Kansas "the most direct condemnation of wealth and income inequality, and the most expansive moral defense of the need for government activism to combat it, that Obama has delivered in his career." As summarized by Kevin Drum, the President "debunked trickle-down economics, punctured the myth of the unregulated paradise, and slammed a Republican party fixated on making life better for the top 1 percent." Thanks in no small part to the Occupy Movement, Obama's speech -- and the national conversation -- has shifted to, as Ari Berman of the Nation tweeted, "income inequality, basic fairness & jobs."
Clearly, with this speech, Obama has move into campaign mode and it is great he has recognized the importance, finally, of using populist rhetoric to make the case against economic injustice. The big question is what he will do about it when he is not on the campaign trail. -- Lovechilde
By Richard (RJ) Eskow, cross-posted from Campaign for America's Future
But echoing the populist chords of the First Progressive Era isn't
without its risks. The speech that Roosevelt gave in Osawatomie, Kansas
in 1910 could serve as a beacon for the President and his fellow
Democrats. But that speech also warned that there's a price to be paid
for promises betrayed.
If Roosevelt's ghost had been hovering over the lectern today, no
doubt it would have appreciated being remembered. But the apparition
might also have repeated the words Roosevelt spoke on the same platform
"It is of little use for us to pay lip-loyalty to the mighty men
of the past unless we sincerely endeavor to apply to the problems of the
present precisely the qualities which i... enabled the men of that day
to meet those crises."
President Roosevelt fought relentlessly against the powerful
financial interests of his time, who dominated the nation in pretty much
the same way they dominate ours today. J. Pierpont Morgan famously
offered to "send my man around to meet your man and sort it all out,"
but President Roosevelt didn't want to cut deals with powerful banking
interests. He wanted to make them less powerful, and he got it done.
Four years after leaving office, Roosevelt was running for President
again. People back then suggested that his ideas were too extreme: A
minimum wage. Women's right to vote. Direct election of Senators. An
eight-hour workday. But they all came true.
Now that's change you can believe in. And here's what Teddy Roosevelt told his Kansas audience that day.
Corrupt bankers must be prosecuted
More than one thousand bank executives were prosecuted after the
Savings and Loan scandal of the 1980's under Republican President Ronald
Reagan. This week's 60 Minutes report presented overwhelming
evidence of criminal behavior at the major banks. The Financial Crisis
Inquiry Commission provided a wealth of evidence suggested criminal
acts, as did the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations. I analyzed
information about leading executives at my former employer, AIG, that also seemed to suggest blatant illegal activity.
Yet, up to now, not one senior executive at a major financial
institution has been prosecuted. There is no excuse for the Obama
Administration's failure to prosecute anyone.
Teddy Roosevelt told the citizens of Osawatomie that "I believe
that the officers, and, especially, the directors, of corporations
should be held personally responsible when any corporation breaks the
Personally responsible, the man said.
Meanwhile the Obama Justice Department sits idly by as the SEC
continues to let major corporations pay slap-on-the-wrist fines for
executive criminality - fines that are often paid by the same
shareholders they deceived - while "neither admitting nor denying
The Wall Street Casino
"No man should receive a dollar unless that dollar has been fairly earned," said Roosevelt. "Every dollar received should represent a dollar's worth of service rendered-not gambling in stocks, but service rendered."
Today the financial sector is once again earning nearly 40 percent of
the nation's corporate profits, and much of that income is earned by
gambling in ways Roosevelt and his contemporaries couldn't have
As for "services rendered," there's not much of that going on.
Lending remains at low levels, despite all the low-interest loans and
other money-generating perks the banks have been given.
The Revolving Door
"One of the fundamental necessities in a representative government such as ours," said Roosevelt,
"is to make certain that the men to whom the people delegate their
power shall serve the people by whom they are elected, and not the
The Obama Administration, like the Bush and Clinton Administrations
before it, has seen a revolving door between Wall Street and its
economic officials. Larry Summers, Bill Daley, and others made millions
on Wall Street before serving this White House.
Peter Orszag went directly from the President's service to a
high-paying and vaguely designed position with Citigroup, a corrupt and
inept mega-bank that wouldn't even existed had it not been for the
ministrations of Clinton officials like Summers and former Treasury
Secretary Robert Rubin.
Rubin went on to make more than 100 million dollars as an executive
with the monolith he helped create, which then became the largest
recipient of public largesse.
Roosevelt told his Kansas audience that "every national officer,
elected or appointed, should be forbidden to perform any service or
receive any compensation, directly or indirectly, from interstate
"They're people, my friend!" That's what Mitt Romney told an
audience member who asked him about the novel and warped idea of
"corporate personhood" that's stripping real people of their ability to
assert their rights against corporate interests.
"Corporate personhood"? Here's what TR had to say:
"We are face to face with new conceptions of the relations of
property to human welfare, chiefly because certain advocates of the
rights of property as against the rights of men have been pushing their
claims too far."
Roosevelt also said this in Osawatomie:
"The man who wrongly holds that every human right is secondary to
his profit must now give way to the advocate of human welfare ..."
Roosevelt told his Kansas audience that "The really big fortune, the
swollen fortune, by the mere fact of its size, acquires qualities which
differentiate it in kind as well as in degree ..."
The United States already suffers from more unequal distribution of
wealth than Egypt. The rich continue to amass more and more wealth,
while the middle class loses ground and the ranks of the impoverished
swell. It will take a combination of smart regulation, corporate
transparency, and more progressive taxation to reverse that trend.
Roosevelt continued: "I believe in a graduated income tax on big
fortunes, and in another tax which is far more easily collected and far
more effective-a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes ...
increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate."
Corporate Corruption of the Political Process
Roosevelt's words ring stronger than ever in this post-Citizens United world, where corporate contributions are unlimited. "If our political institutions were perfect," he said, "they would absolutely prevent the political domination of money in any part of our affairs."
Regarding disclosure of campaign contributions, he said that "it
is particularly important that all moneys received or expended for
campaign purposes should be publicly accounted for, not only after
election, but before election as well."
A Final Warning
"A broken promise is bad enough in private life," Roosevelt told his Kansas audience. "It is worse in the field of politics."
As we said, it's encouraging to see the President channeling the old
Rough Rider in Kansas. It was good to see him taking the rhetorical
fight to corporate interests and arguing for extending unemployment
insurance. In the past he's also said the right things, if not always
forcefully, about corporate election reform and taxing the wealthy. If
he want to "throw down the gauntlet" with this speech, as an aide
suggested, than he and his team should remember that gauntlet-throwing
is what people do when they're prepared to fight. It's not a good move
if they're not.
Populism isn't a rhetorical pose. It's a mode of action. And
nobody's a better example of the politics of action than the old Rough
Rider himself, Teddy Roosevelt. Let's hope the President continues to
emulate the man they used to call "Old Rough and Ready." If Barack
Obama's finally willing to get rough to serve the higher good, a lot of
Americans will be ready.
But he's disappointed his followers before: by promising to defend
Social Security, then repeatedly offering to cut its benefits; by
campaigning against taxing costlier health plans, then actively pushing
to include that tax in his bill; and with other reversals from campaign
pledges. If the President hasn't committed himself to following his
words with forceful and unambiguous action, he should remember what
Theodore Roosevelt said on that winter day in 1910:
"No man is worth his salt in public life who makes on the stump a pledge which he does not keep after election."