President Barack Obama speaks about the economy, Tuesday, December 6, 2011, at Osawatomie High School in Osawatomie, Kansas. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
It’s become a cliché to say that Occupy Wall Street has changed our country’s political conversation. But if you want to know exactly how the Occupy movement has impacted the debate in Washington, read Barack Obama’s speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, today.
For much of 2011, Obama’s speeches were all about the deficit. Today the central theme of his speech was income inequality—and how this mounting problem weakens our economy and our democracy. At long last, the president sounded like he was channeling his inner Elizabeth Warren.
Obama’s pivot away from austerity orthodoxy and toward public investment began with his jobs speech in September, but he’s subsequently sharpened his language and focus in recent months in response to pressure from Occupy Wall Street. He’s now tackling issues of basic fairness and attacking the GOP’s brand of “your-on-your-own economics” in a much more direct way. His nod to Teddy Roosevelt, who delivered his “New Nationalism” speech in Osawatomie in 1910, could not have come at a more appropriate time. Here’s the relevant section:
Now, just as there was in Teddy Roosevelt’s time, there’s been a certain crowd in Washington for the last few decades who respond to this economic challenge with the same old tune. “The market will take care of everything,” they tell us. If only we cut more regulations and cut more taxes—especially for the wealthy—our economy will grow stronger. Sure, there will be winners and losers. But if the winners do really well, jobs and prosperity will eventually trickle down to everyone else. And even if prosperity doesn’t trickle down, they argue, that’s the price of liberty.
It’s a simple theory—one that speaks to our rugged individualism and healthy skepticism of too much government. It fits well on a bumper sticker. Here’s the problem: it doesn’t work. It’s 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 post-war boom of the ’50s and ’60s. And it didn’t work when we tried it during the last decade.
Remember that in those years, in 2001 and 2003, Congress passed two of the most expensive tax cuts for the wealthy in history, and what did they get us? The slowest job growth in half a century. Massive deficits that have made it much harder to pay for the investments that built this country and provided the basic security that helped millions of Americans reach and stay in the middle class—things like education and infrastructure; science and technology; Medicare and Social Security.
Remember that in those years, thanks to some of the same folks who are running Congress now, we had weak regulation and little oversight, and what did that get us? Insurance companies that jacked up people’s premiums with impunity, and denied care to the patients who were sick. Mortgage lenders that tricked families into buying homes they couldn’t afford. A financial sector where irresponsibility and lack of basic oversight nearly destroyed our entire economy.