President Barack Obama has decided that he is more likely to win if the election is about big things rather than small ones. He hopes to turn the 2012 campaign from a plebiscite about the current state of the economy into a referendum about the broader progressive tradition that made us a middle-class nation. For the second time, he intends to stake his fate on a battle for the future.
This choice has obvious political benefits to an incumbent presiding over a still-ailing economy, and it confirms Obama's shift from a defensive approach earlier this year to an aggressive philosophical attack on a Republican Party that has veered sharply rightward. It's also the boldest move the president has made since he decided to go all-out for health insurance reform even after the Democrats lost their sixty-vote majority in the Senate in early 2010.
The president's speech on Tuesday in Osawatomie, Kansas, the site of Theodore Roosevelt's legendary "New Nationalism" speech 101 years ago, was the inaugural address Obama never gave. It was, at once, a clear philosophical rationale for his presidency, a straightforward narrative explaining the causes of the nation's travails, and a coherent plan of battle against a radicalized conservatism that now defines the Republican Party and has set the tone for its presidential nominating contest.
In drawing upon TR, Obama tied himself unapologetically to a defense of America's long progressive and liberal tradition. The Republican Roosevelt, after all, drew his inspiration from the writer Herbert Croly, whose book The Promise of American Life can fairly be seen as the original manifesto for modern liberalism. Thus has the Tea Party's radicalism encouraged a very shrewd politician to take on a task that Democrats have been reluctant to engage since Ronald Reagan's ascendancy.
Obama was remarkably direct in declaring that the core ideas of the progressivism advanced by Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt were right, and that the commitments of Reagan-era supply-side economics are flatly wrong. He praised TR for knowing "that the free market has never been a free license to take whatever you can from whomever you can" and for understanding that "the free market only works when there are rules of the road that ensure competition is fair and open and honest."
He also eviscerated supply-side economics, a theory promising that "if we just cut more regulations and cut more taxes -- especially for the wealthy -- our economy will grow stronger."
"But here's the problem," Obama declared. "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."
A White House that just a few months ago was obsessed with the political center is now not at all wary, as a senior adviser put it, of extolling "a vision that has worked for this country." But this adviser also noted that Obama implicitly contrasted the flexibility of the Rooseveltian progressivism with the rigidity of the current brand of conservatism. The official pointed to Obama's strong commitment to education reform, including his critique in Osawatomie of "just throwing money at education."
"You can embrace it (the progressive tradition) if you can make the point that philosophies and political theories can evolve as facts on the ground change," the adviser said. The liberalism Obama advocated thus contains a core of moderation that the ideology of the tea party does not. Finally, Obama has realized that the path to the doors of moderate voters passes through a wholesale critique of the immoderation of the right.
For months, progressives have asked why Obama wasn't invoking the populist language of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his attacks on "economic royalists" and "the privileged princes" of "new economic dynasties." What progressives often forget is that FDR offered these words only when his first term was almost over, in his acceptance speech at the 1936 Democratic National Convention. Roosevelt did not become a full-throated economic populist until the election was upon him -- and only after he was pressed by a left and a labor movement that demanded more of him.
Facing his own re-election and pushed by an Occupy Wall Street movement that has made economic inequality a driving issue in our politics, Barack Obama discovered both of his inner Roosevelts.
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).