Time and again, President Obama has overreached. He has demanded prime-time television cameras, commanded congressional audiences, and commandeered the historic trappings of the White House for speeches that, despite his reputation as an orator, have rarely lived up to their settings. That makes it richly ironic that, this time, Obama went to a town few have heard of and even fewer can pronounce, in a state hostile to him electorally and insignificant politically, to give perhaps the most powerful speech of his presidency.
The address Obama delivered at Osawatomie High School in the Kansas town that entertains presidents only once a century was the opposite of a State of the Union address. It was not a legislative blueprint and contained few specifics. Instead, it was the type of speech one hopes for from a president early in his term, one setting out the philosophical underpinnings of his policies in what Ronald Reagan always called “bold colors.”
Unlike some of his recent high-profile speeches to Congress or in the White House, the president did not seem defensive. From his “I want you to hear me, Kansas” pledge to veto any weakening of consumer protections to his denunciation of those who oppose him, this was the type of fighting Obama that many in his party had despaired of seeing replace the too-dispassionate president who often seemed to disappear from fights before the round is over.
What drove the president to this speech at this moment, his aides insist, is neither low approval ratings nor the nonstop criticisms of the Republicans running to deny him a second term. One senior administration official said the president feels the country is at a critical moment and major decisions needed to be made about what kind of country Americans want it to be.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the goal of the speech was to “really try to put the economic debates that we’ve had this year, and the policy debates that we’ll have going forward, into perspective.” He promised “a very clear elucidation of this president’s position on these issues and his vision for the country.”
Another senior official, speaking to reporters prior to the speech, said Obama now sees middle-class insecurity as “the central challenge of his presidency.” He added, “What we are saying is that, going forward, we have a common-sense view of what it takes to get the economy working again.”
Politically, the White House hopes that staging the speech in the Kansas town made famous by Theodore Roosevelt’s landmark 1910 speech makes Obama look in the mainstream of presidents of both parties of the past. By implication, his foes in the GOP and the tea party—and specifically the Republican presidential aspirants—look radical or reactionary. That, at least, is the White House hope when aides cast the post-Osawatomie debate as “common-sense, Main Street ideas versus a set of ideas that are a departure from a lot of Republicans in their own party.”
Amid growing alarm over statistics showing the gap growing between rich and middle class, the White House sees the country “at a crossroads” moment. As the president said in Kansas, “For most Americans, the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded.” He added, “Fewer and fewer of the folks who contributed to the success of our economy actually benefited from that success. Those at the very top grew wealthier from their incomes and investments than ever before.”
Dismayed at what he called the “near-constant state of gridlock” in Washington, the president used his speech to try to rise above that squabbling, insisting that “this is not just another political debate. This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class and for all those who are fighting to get into the middle class.”
More than once, he said the system will only work “when everyone gets a fair shot ... and when everyone plays by the same rules.”
He challenged his Republican opponents to reject “you’re-on-your-own economics,” contending that it “doesn’t result in a prosperity that trickles down. It results in a prosperity that’s enjoyed by fewer and fewer of our citizens.”
Republicans are not going to surrender the issue to Democrats, though. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told the National Journal that his party wants to help everybody, rich and poor alike. "It doesn't help to penalize success," he said. Cantor also accused Obama of stealing the phrase "fair deal" from his speeches.
With a national election now less than 12 months away and Republicans determined to give him no legislative victories, it is likely too late for any one speech to alter the dynamics of Capitol Hill. But now, because of this speech, the president has at least offered a philosophical framework for the battles to come.