The Limits of Obama’s New Nationalism

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Not as populist as he sounds.Photo: Julie Denesha/2011 Getty Images

President Obama’s Teddy Roosevelt tribute speech in Osawatomie laid out a pretty standard-issue liberal critique of rising income inequality, middle-class wage stagnation, and the failure of the conservative economic agenda. The predictable conservative response, from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Charles Krauthammer, attacks this as radical left-wing class war. A more interesting response comes from moderate conservatives like David Frum and Ross Douthat, who note that Obama’s strong indictment of inequality is not matched by an equally strong program to address it. Frum, for instance, describes Obama’s program like so:

Let's accept that our future prosperity will be very narrowly based, and instead use some of the proceeds of that narrow prosperity to create government jobs as consolation prizes for those who lose out in private markets. …

Few politicians offer a more acute assessment of America's problems than President Obama. But when it comes to creating an effective alternative — the country is left waiting.

Douthat likewise calls Obama’s plan "a defense of business-as-usual."

I think there’s a lot of power in this critique. It actually echoes a left-wing critique of "pity-charity liberalism," which is one critical term for a liberalism that allows unchecked market inequality, and hopes to use government to slightly ameliorate that inequality with transfers, as opposed to directly intervening to change the shape of market outcomes. The basic thrust of the critique is that it’s hopelessly naïve for liberals to imagine the wealthy will gain more economic power while allowing the government to transfer larger shares of their income to the great majority of the population. I remain unconvinced that there is a useful plan that can actually reverse or halt growing pre-transfer inequality at an acceptable price, and even if there were, it’s impossible to imagine the U.S. political system ever enacting it.

So where does this leave the moderate-conservative critique of Obama? Obama may not be making a frontal assault on rising inequality, but he is doing something about it. He proposes slightly more progressive taxes, and he wants to provide universal health insurance — not an insignificant part of the basic protection the government can offer its citizens against the hazards of the market.

Meanwhile, the Republican program is a dramatic acceleration of those trends. The party is committed to wiping out taxes on investment income and turning the tax code into a vast engine of upward redistribution. It is likewise committed to undoing universal health insurance coverage. The Republicans have also voted almost unanimously for a budget that absolutely slashes Pell Grants, Head Start, Medicaid, and other programs that provide a bit of relief to the unfortunate.

So, yes, Obama’s program is a pretty meager response to runaway inequality when measured against nothing else. But to miss the contrast between Obama’s program and the existing alternative that the American people could choose in 2012 is an act of blindness. The obvious point of the speech is that, in the context of runaway inequality and corporate power, an agenda of locking in the Bush tax cuts, imposing the budget cuts this would require, deregulating Wall Street, and repealing health care reform is an act of madness.

The mismatch between Obama’s staunch populist tone and the meekness of his agenda is simply a function of the ideological contrast between a radical GOP and a moderate Democratic Party. Obama is a populist only in counterposition to the radical plutocracy of the opposition party.