On Obama, Teddy Roosevelt, and the not-so-fierce urgency of maybe next term
That was Barack Obama on "60 Minutes" last Sunday.
But what, if the president wins a second term, does he plan to do to about it? The advantage to being the challenger is that the country gives you the benefit of the doubt while the incumbent's rhetoric has a scorecard to be judged against.
As rhetoric goes, it was a good week for Obama, the centerpiece of which was a major economic speech in Osawatomie, Kan. on Tuesday. It was there, 101 years ago, that Theodore Roosevelt laid down some serious rhetoric of his own, putting forth a bold vision for the country. He ended up losing that election, but much of what he set forth - unemployment insurance, a progressive tax system, child labor laws, the eight-hour work day, minimum wages for women - are taken for granted today.
In that speech, Roosevelt called for a "new nationalism," the guiding principle of which would be the "square deal." Here's how he described it: "(W)hen I say that I am for the square deal, I mean not merely that I stand for fair play under the present rules of the games, but that I stand for having those rules changed so as to work for a more substantial equality of opportunity and of reward for equally good service."
Obama echoed T.R., saying, "the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded." It is, he said, "not just another political debate" but "the defining issue of our time."
Which returns us to the difference between rhetoric and action. The president is right: This is the defining issue of our time. But it didn't become the defining issue when election season began. It was the defining issue of our time even as Obama spent much of the last year or so talking about the deficit and budget cutting, having bought into the conventional Washington wisdom.
In Kansas, Obama also zeroed in on the effects of inequality on participation in the political process:
"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."
One doesn't need to go back a year to find something that seems at odds with that rhetoric. Just look at what the administration did with for-profit colleges, which prey on vets, minorities and poor Americans, and exploit the impulse to better oneself that lies at the heart of the American dream.
That's why last year the administration announced a set of tough - and fully justified - new regulations. And what happened? The for-profit colleges spent $16 million of that profit lobbying the administration. And they didn't just hire run-of-the-mill lobbyists - they hired Democratic insiders, like Anita Dunn, the former White House communications director, and Dick Gephardt, former House Majority Leader.
The result? Watered-down rules, gaping loopholes . . . business as usual.
Once again, it's clear that even with a president who claims he wants to change a broken system, all you need in Washington to maintain the status quo is Dick Gephardt and a few Obama bundlers on speed dial.
As the watered-down for-profit-college rules show, Obama is still missing opportunities. And though the Kansas speech outlined the fault lines of our current economic landscape quite effectively, it was short on bold proposals that would lessen the threat from those widening schisms.
That's the danger of rhetoric for an incumbent - we know what you've done. Or haven't done.
In his "60 Minutes" interview, in answer to a question about whether he overpromised during the campaign, the president replied:
"I didn't overpromise. And I didn't underestimate how tough this was going to be. I always believed that this was a long-term project. . . . That reversing a culture here in Washington, dominated by special interests . . . it was going to take more than a year. It was going to take more than two years. It was going to take more than one term. Probably takes more than one president."
More than one president? During the campaign, Obama was fond of quoting Martin Luther King Jr.'s "the fierce urgency of now." But now we're supposed to wait for the fierce urgency of two or three more presidents?
The question is, can you be a major leader without a sense of urgency? It's a bit late, but the president has finally zeroed in on the defining issue of our time. And he's right that it's not a right/left issue - but a valued shared by the vast majority of Americans. But getting that consensus to drive public policy is a different task altogether. And it's going to require much more than soaring rhetoric.
(Arianna Huffington's e-mail address is email@example.com.)