04/05/2012 03:08 pm ET Updated Jun 05, 2012

OWS Triumphant: Obama, Romney and the Politics of Inequality

Lest we forget that in politics timing is everything, Obama just reignited the flames of the 99 percent versus the 1 percent battles of last year during his speech at the annual AP luncheon Tuesday. In a deft assertion of the president's power to set the terms of American politics, Obama launched a full-throated attack on the Republican Party and Mitt Romney. Obama painted the Romney-Ryan budget plan as "antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity and upward mobility for everyone who's willing to work for it," as a "Trojan horse" and as "thinly veiled social Darwinism." Bam.

Sure, he's absolutely right that the Republicans are explicit and unapologetic in their attempts to enshrine the wealthiest Americans as the economic and political rulers of the rest of us. We have to put that aside: being right on the issues never got anyone elected president. What Obama's doing is forcing a debate about the most fundamental question before the nation: Do we govern in the interest of the 1 percent or do we govern in the interest of the 99 percent?

Obama did not tip his hat to Occupy Wall Street, but let there be no doubt that the sea change in American attitudes toward inequality did not originate in the White House. It was in the tents of Zuccotti Park that the struggle for fairness, equality and justice took form. OWS reshaped the debate by listening and synthesizing a slogan that encapsulated the frustrations and fears of millions of Americans and billions of people all over the world. Those who criticized OWS for not having an "agenda" missed the point. It was going to be up to elected officials and the political class to translate that changed consciousness into campaigns, TV ads, legislation and government.

I offer no criticism of Obama for his ingratitude. He's doing his job just as he should. Whatever missteps and sorry compromises he may have made, however late to the game, he has honed the slogan into a political battle-cry that only a president can manage to do. Politicians are the guardians of the language. The words chosen by presidents, congressmembers, state legislators, governors, mayors, etc. define our social relations. Romney/Ryan can't avoid the confrontation. They will complain about class warfare, they will belittle the messenger, but they will eventually have to respond.

For what it is worth, let's hope that the disaffected Left doesn't pull a Ralph Nader on us again. Whatever disappointment people may have felt, Obama has seized the time. He is now the standard-bearer for the struggle for equality and democracy. We're still the most functional democracy in the world. The work of electoral politics is beginning. Venceramos.