At the “centerpiece of this campaign,” Newt Gingrich told adoring followers after winning the South Carolina primary, is a fundamental choice: between “American exceptionalism” and “the radicalism of Saul Alinsky.” We can opt for the vision of the founders or that of community organizer Alinsky; for a paycheck president or a “food stamp president.”
Redbaiting and dog-whistle racism may have given Gingrich his lift in the Palmetto State, but the dichotomy he posed is not new. It is simply a gutter version of the common Republican frame for this election. In more measured words, Mitt Romney accuses President Obama of trying to transform America from an “opportunity society” into a “European-style entitlement society.”
In his State of the Union address, President Obama also offered a clear choice—but the one he posed is between those who would return to the failed policies that led to recession and those who would build a new foundation for the economy. In a speech suffused with the spirit of Occupy Wall Street, the president emphasized fairness and accountability, promising to set up a financial crimes unit to crack down on fraud. He called for an end to subsidies to millionaires and Big Oil and for revision of a tax code that allows Warren Buffett to pay taxes at a lower rate than his secretary, who was seated with the first lady. This was good policy but also shrewd politics in an election year when Occupy has popular resonance, Wall Street is despised and Romney’s unfair tax advantages have been made public.
The administration has warned against the extreme inequality corrupting our democracy. The wealthiest Americans captured nearly all the rewards of growth in the decade before the collapse. This wasn’t an act of nature; they used their resources to deregulate finance, lower taxes, defend their privileges and trample on workers’ rights. Middle-class families worked longer hours and took on debt to buttress stagnant incomes, even as Wall Street speculators went on a rampage. Romney and Gingrich, the “vulture capitalist” and the lavishly rewarded Washington insider, represent not success but the corruptions that brought us the Great Recession.
Most Americans agree that Bush-era policies don’t offer a way out. Yet it’s not enough for Obama to say that everyone should play by the rules and the wealthy should pay their fair share. His task is to show how fairness—and government action to enforce it—is essential to economic renewal. He began to do this in the fall with his employment bill, which would tax the rich to pay for infrastructure investments and allow states to save the jobs of teachers and cops. The president built on this theme in his State of the Union speech, when he announced new aid for distressed homeowners and the creation of a special federal–state unit, chaired by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, to mount a thorough investigation of the fraudulent mortgage practices that led to the worst economic crisis since the Depression. Yet with unemployment still high, Obama missed the opportunity to renew a call for urgent action on jobs.
At a time when Americans fear the future and are seeking solutions, an estimated $1 billion will be lavished on negative campaign ads. Republicans offer only more of what created the mess; the president offers initiatives that are on the right track but don’t go nearly far enough. That’s why the movement that began in Wisconsin a year ago, occupied Wall Street and spread across the country must keep on growing.