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NJ Daily / ANALYSIS

In Address, Obama Bets It All On Fairness

Big night: Obama sounds a positive note in the State of the Union.(RICHARD A. BLOOM)

photo of Major Garrett
January 24, 2012

Everyman. Fair man.

President Obama, like every president, wants to be the former. And he began his campaign for reelection with the trappings of a State of the Union address promising to be the latter—to be the fair man. Obama’s address was designed to portray him as a partner who can break a two-decade-long cycle of rising economic output but near-stagnant wages. Not a New Deal, but a Fair Deal.

“We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by,” Obama said as he introduced the underlying theme of the address. “Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”

 

Everyman. Fair man.

Republicans, of course, want to make him Nowhere Man. This was the central tension in the House chamber and will remain so this election year. That Obama stressed fairness comes as no surprise as a matter of substance, politics or history.

Substantively, Obama is a left-of-center president who believes in government as an instrument to protect individuals from the ravages of not only free-market economics, but globalized free-market economics—what potential Republican challenger Mitt Romney often calls “destructive capitalism.”

Politically, Obama must speak to the nervous anxiety of a more pessimistic nation. Despite the creation of 1.6 million jobs in the last 12 months, the difference between those Americans who believe the country is on the wrong track versus on the right track is noticeably larger than a year ago. The average of nine January polls taken a year ago before the State of Union showed the difference or “split” between those thinking the country was on the wrong track versus right track was 24 percent. The average of the five January polls taken this year is 36 percent. Obama knows he must turn this trend around. Pressing for fairness is his political instrument.

Finally, as a matter of history pressing for fairness—something akin to a fair deal—recalls memories of Harry Truman. That’s what Truman called his 21-point domestic agenda designed to expand President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. Truman proposed his fair deal in his State of the Union address in 1949—after he won reelection. Obama preached fairness in an election year. This is not an accident. As Obama often says, “We can’t wait.” This is true of his fairness pitch and his reelection campaign.

Like Truman, Obama tried to address a housing crisis. Both were late to the issue.

“Millions of Americans who work hard and play by the rules every day deserve a government and a financial system that do the same,” Obama said. “It’s time to apply the same rules from top to bottom:  No bailouts, no handouts, and no cop-outs.”

Cop-out is a funky 1970s word meant to apply to pinstripe bankers who accepted TARP funds but still sit on cash reserves rather than reworking distressed mortgages. Blaming banks for failing to fulfill a commitment (the definition of a cop-out) is Obama’s way of focusing bailout anger on the still-smoldering ruins of the Great Recession economy—the residential real-estate market.

On taxes, Obama drew a sharp line with Republicans who refuse to raise taxes on anyone for any purpose. “Right now, Warren Buffett pays a lower tax rate than his secretary. Do we want to keep these tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans?”

With evident gusto, Obama made the fairness pitch in the context of taxing millionaires more and driving his message straight into the teeth of a crackling theme of GOP presidential criticism.

“You can call this class warfare all you want,” Obama said. “But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes?  Most Americans would call that common sense.”

Obama knows much of what he calls fairness Republicans will dismiss as populist pandering. The White House expects this but hopes the appeal will reach independent voters. In 2008, 52 percent of them backed Obama. Now, only 31 percent of them rate Obama’s presidency favorably and two-thirds of them say he’s made no real economic progress for the nation. They will, in all likelihood, render the final electoral judgment later this year.

And since 40 percent of voters now define themselves as independents—the highest percentage in American history—that only seems, well… fair.

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