When Barack Obama took the stage in Osawatomie, Kansas, on December 6, there was no talk about “change we can believe in” or “we’re the ones we’ve been waiting for” or even any mention of “hope.” Gone were the slogans and good vibes from 2008 that promised transcendence to a higher, less partisan plane of existence. Instead there was real talk: about how the “basic bargain that made this country great has eroded,” about the “breathtaking greed of a few,” about how “the typical CEO who used to earn about thirty times more than his or her worker now earns 110 times more,” and about how the nation is facing a “make-or-break moment for the middle class.”
The president called out the Republicans, whose deregulatory, anti-tax mania brought us the “you’re on your own” economy and whose solution to the crisis is more of the same. Perhaps most important, he made an argument about inequality—not just on moral terms, although there was plenty of that, but on economic ones as well. As long as middle-class Americans can’t buy the goods and services that businesses are selling, he explained, the entire economy will drag. It was the speech Obama should have given years ago; it took the Occupy movement to make him do it.
Some may worry that Obama is trying to co-opt Occupy in an election year. We say—let him try. The fact that the president’s speechwriters are cribbing from Occupy’s handmade posters is just one more indication of the movement’s major victory so far: it has changed the national conversation, giving us a new vocabulary, the 99 percent. If this framing succeeds, its impact will surpass any one speech, or even any one president’s re-election. It will be the paradigm within which all politicians will be judged—what have you done for the 99 percent?
This framework has already scored a win in New York, birthplace of the Occupy movement, where after months of maneuvering against progressives and catering to Wall Street, Governor Andrew Cuomo reversed course and partially restored a millionaire’s tax he had pledged to let expire in his campaign. The outcome is not ideal—the new tax raises less money than the one it replaces, and grave budget cuts still loom—but what’s worth celebrating here is how established progressive groups worked alongside Occupy to break Cuomo’s will, tarring him as “Governor 1 Percent” [see “Noted ”]. In the end, it was a label he couldn’t bear and sustained pressure he couldn’t withstand.
If Obama is to avoid becoming President 1 Percent, he’ll have to take up more than Occupy’s language. He’ll have to change the conditions that have so immiserated and enraged the 99 percent. The president’s Kansas speech was a welcome sign that he’s willing to draw a few hard lines, but he could show where he stands by acting swiftly to back legislation that restores economic fairness, even if it will fail this time around. The most ambitious agenda on the table is the omnibus “American Dream” legislation from the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), which would put 5.4 million Americans to work in two years. The bill would also create a National Infrastructure Development Bank and shore up Social Security and Medicare. It would raise revenue and reduce the deficit by more than $2 trillion over ten years by ending the war in Afghanistan, introducing a speculation tax, eliminating subsidies for Big Oil and raising taxes on the 1 percent.
The CPC bill isn’t perfect, but in an atmosphere stunted by a misguided Beltway obsession with deficits, it’s the best thing going. If the president doesn’t move in its direction, we will face continued high unemployment, declining wages, spreading poverty and deepening inequality. Yes, we can do better.