The general rap against the Occupy Wall Street movement is that it has no clear leadership or goals. And a complaint of some Democrats against President Obama is that he hasn't found a way to get in front of it and harness its energy to work for his re-election.
In his speech this week in Osawatomie, Kan., where almost exactly a century ago Theodore Roosevelt launched his pitch for a "New Nationalism," the president reached back into history in an effort to achieve both objectives.
Grasping TR's recognition of economic inequality between the wielders of corporate power and the workers who made their engines go, Mr. Obama latched onto the essential theme of the current street protesters. Their claim -- that they are the 99 percent of Americans massively short-changed by the 1 percent holding the reins of production and finance -- is a recycling of Teddy's long-ago war against the "malefactors of great wealth."
By hitching his call for ending the Bush tax cuts for the rich to a former Republican president who spoke forcefully against income inequality, Mr. Obama may hope to give the message a protective coating against Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail who call targeting those cuts "class warfare."
Never mind that when Teddy Roosevelt made his historic speech against inordinate corporate power in 1910, he was gearing up for a losing campaign to regain the presidency in 1912. His message was strong enough, however, to destroy the re-election chances of his own handpicked choice to succeed himself in 1908, William Howard Taft. Running as a Progressive third-party candidate in 1912, TR finished ahead of Taft but second behind Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
President Obama in his Kansas speech emulated the first Roosevelt by deftly praising the entrepreneurial spirit before coming down hard on the excesses of its largest practitioners. "He was the Republican son of a wealthy family," Mr. Obama noted. "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..."
Then, however, Mr. Obama cited TR's recognition of the need for tougher government regulation and oversight: "But Roosevelt also knew that the free market has never been a free license to take whatever you can from whomever you can. He understood the free market only works where there are rules of the road to ensure competition that 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."
The Republican Roosevelt called for a "square deal" for working Americans, and Mr. Obama piggybacked on the idea, mocking the GOP's view that "if the winners do really well, then jobs and prosperity will eventually trickle down to everybody else." Mr. Obama argued "it doesn't work. It has never worked. It didn't work when it was tried in the decade before the Great Depression ... and it didn't work when we tried it during the last decade. ... Congress passed two of the most expensive tax cuts for the wealthy in history, and where did it get us? The slowest job growth in half a century. ... It results in a prosperity that's enjoyed by fewer and fewer of our citizens."
President Obama insisted that "the breathtaking greed of a few with irresponsibility all across the system" has made income inequality "the defining issue of our time ... a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and for all those fighting to get into the middle class." In effect, he was answering the Republican accusation of class warfare with an open embrace of a shrinking middle class in a significant sense later created by the New Deal policies of the younger Roosevelt, cousin Franklin D.
In a time of such high and lingering joblessness when so many Americans have no or little income at all, it's a gamble for Mr. Obama to steer the 2012 campaign debate into a philosophical argument on government's role in combating income inequality. But it's an argument that the current protest in our city streets continues to demand and one that could have more general resonance with voters between now and next year's election.
Jules Witcover is a former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.