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On Obama, Teddy Roosevelt, And The Not-So-Fierce Urgency Of Maybe Next Term

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"What's happened to the American deal that says, you know, we are focused on building a strong middle class? That is not a left or right position. That is an American position."

That was Barack Obama on this week's 60 Minutes. He went on to add:

And the question is going to be, in this election, whether or not we are able to reclaim that vital center of American thought and American values that says, 'We're all in this together' and, you know, it matters if we are building a broad-based middle class, where everybody is able to do their part and everybody's able to succeed.

I couldn't agree more. In fact, that's practically been the theme song of this site for the last few years. We've long argued that concerns about the middle class, economic disparity, upward mobility, empathy, and a common purpose shouldn't be seen as prerogatives of the left -- and that framing them as such is often a way of marginalizing them. So it's great to see President Obama attempt to change the tenor of the debate by refusing to see those values as either left or right.

But what, if the president wins a second term, does he plan to do to "reclaim that vital center"? 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 60 Minutes interview was the coda to what's being called the unofficial rollout of the campaign, the centerpiece of which was a major economic speech in Osawatomie, Kan. on Tuesday. The site was no accident. 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 (unless you're listening to Republican presidential candidates vying to prove their anti-government credentials). And President Obama explicitly brought both the spirit and the substance of TR into his speech.

In that speech a century ago, Roosevelt called for a "new nationalism," the guiding principle of which would be the "square deal." Here's how he described it: "...when 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."

Is there a better distillation of the central problem facing the country today?

Obama echoed TR, 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.

Obama went on in the Osawatomie speech to make an eloquent case against the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, which he called "two of the most expensive tax cuts for the wealthy in history." But then why did he extend those tax cuts in December 2010? "We have to deal with the world as we find it," said David Axelrod at the time. Not something one can easily imagine the Rough Rider saying.

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. It leaves everyone else rightly suspicious that the system in Washington is rigged against them, that our elected representatives aren't looking out for the interests of most Americans.

One doesn't need to go back a year to find something that seems at odds with that rhetoric. Just take a look at what the administration did with for-profit colleges, demonstrating that "Washington is rigged" and "looking out for the interests of most Americans." The misery, fraud, and exploitation by for-profit colleges have been relentlessly covered by Chris Kirkham on HuffPost. They prey on vets, minorities, and poor Americans, exploiting the impulse to better oneself that lies at the heart of the American dream. Because what many of these aspiring students don't know is that they're going to be saddled with a lifetime of debt, but not much in return in the way of skills to help them pay it back.

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 current friend of the president, and Jamie Rubin, one of the most prominent 2008 bundlers for the Obama campaign. And Tony Podesta, brother of John Podesta, who was co-head of the transition team. And John Breaux, former Senator from Louisiana. And Dick Gephardt, former House Majority Leader.

The result? Watered-down rules, gaping loopholes... business as usual. In the words of the New York Times' Eric Lichtblau, it was a "case study in Washington power brokering." It certainly has a nice circular quality to it: money from poor and vulnerable people was used to lobby to relax rules that will allow the companies to continue to exploit poor and vulnerable people. "The Department of Education really bent to the lobbying push," said Donald Heller, a professor at Penn State who closely followed the process.

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. And no one can claim that this was something forced on the administration by the House GOP or filibuster-mad Republicans in the Senate.

"Mr. Obama," opined a New York Times editorial, "was late to Roosevelt's level of passion and action on behalf of the middle class and the poor, having missed several opportunities to make the tax burden more fair and demand real action on the housing crisis from the big banks that he excoriated so effectively in his speech."

As the watered-down for-profit college rules show, he's 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. As Timothy Egan wrote:

In attempting to show himself as the man who would ensure Roosevelt's progressive legacy, Obama showed only the timidity of modern political discourse. Roosevelt's speech was a manifesto; most of his ideas eventually became part of American life. Obama's Osawatomie oration was a rear-guard action, defensive of a governing philosophy under fresh fire... it's a shame that Obama, in channeling T.R. from a long ago summer's evening, could not reach for anything more stirring in his proposals than a call for the approval of his consumer protection bureau appointee, and the continuance of tax cuts for wage-earners.

That's the danger of rhetoric for an incumbent -- we know what you've done. Or haven't done. As HuffPost's Dan Froomkin put it: "...the higher [Obama] soars with his populist rhetoric, the more he calls attention to the enormous gap between the promise of hope and change that he campaigned on in 2008 and the actions he has taken as president."

In his 60 Minutes interview, in answer to a question about whether he over-promised during the campaign, the president replied:

I didn't overpromise. And I didn't underestimate how tough this was gonna be. I always believed that this was a long-term project... That reversing a culture here in Washington, dominated by special interests... it was gonna take more than a year. It was gonna take more than two years. It was gonna 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.