the national interest

Obama Uses Teddy Roosevelt to Go After Romney

US President Barack Obama speaks on the economy and an extension of the payroll tax cut at Osawatomie High School December 6, 2011 in Osawatomie, Kansas.
I am thinking in particular of a certain former CEO at a company that rhymes with “Shmain Capital.” Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama today delivered a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, where Theodore Roosevelt delivered a famous progressive address in 1910. The White House is billing the speech as a thematic statement of Obama’s vision for the economy, and it is just that — an expression of a Rooseveltian belief in regulated capitalism, a progressive income tax, and shared prosperity rather than runaway inequality. But — not to be too low-minded about it — it also reads like a frame for a campaign to contrast himself with Mitt Romney.

Romney has avoided proposing new, large tax breaks. But he does insist on maintaining the Bush tax cuts. Here is Obama arguing against that:

Do we want to make the investments we need in things like education, and research, and high-tech manufacturing? Or do we want to keep in place the tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans in our country? Because we can’t afford to do both. That’s not politics. That’s just math.

So far, most of the Republicans in Washington have refused, under any circumstances, to ask the wealthiest Americans to go the same tax rates they were paying when Bill Clinton was president.

Now, keep in mind, when President Clinton first proposed these tax increases, folks in Congress predicted they would kill jobs and lead to another recession. Instead, our economy created nearly 23 million jobs and we eliminated the deficit. Today, the wealthiest Americans are paying the lowest taxes in over half a century.

Romney also proposes to repeal the Dodd–Frank financial reform. I have previously expressed my bewilderment at Obama’s failure to make Republicans pay a political price for this position — deregulating Wall Street is a wildly unpopular stance. Obama finally hammers the theme today:

For the first time in history, the reform we passed puts in place a consumer watchdog who is charged with protecting everyday Americans from being taken advantage of by mortgage lenders, payday lenders or debt collectors. The man we nominated for the post, Richard Cordray, is a former Attorney General of Ohio who has the support of most Attorneys General, both Democrat and Republican, throughout the country.

But the Republicans in the Senate refuse to let him do his job. Why? Does anyone here think the problem that led to our financial crisis was too much oversight of mortgage lenders or debt collectors? Of course not. Every day we go without a consumer watchdog in place is another day when a student, or a senior citizen, or member of our Armed Forces could be tricked into a loan they can’t afford — something that happens all the time. Financial institutions have plenty of lobbyists looking out for their interests. Consumers deserve to have someone whose job it is to look out for them. I intend to make sure they do, and I will veto any effort to delay, defund, or dismantle the new rules we put in place.

And Obama lauds the ethic of corporate responsibility to the workforce. Here he is praising executives who chose to sacrifice their own salary rather than engage in mass layoffs:

At a time when the cost of hiring workers in China is rising rapidly, it should mean more CEOs deciding that it’s time to bring jobs back to the United States — not just because it’s good for business, but because it’s good for the country that made their business and their personal success possible.

I think about the Big Three Auto companies who, during recent negotiations, agreed to create more jobs and cars in America; who decided to give bonuses, not just to their executives, but to all their employees — so that everyone was invested in the company’s success.

I think about a company based in Warroad, Minnesota called Marvin Windows and Doors. During the recession, Marvin’s competitors closed dozens of plants and let go hundreds of workers. But Marvin didn’t lay off a single one of their four thousand or so employees. In fact, they’ve only laid off workers once in over a hundred years. Mr. Marvin’s grandfather even kept his eight employees during the Depression.

When times get tough, the workers agree to give up some perks and pay, and so do the owners. As one owner said, “You can’t grow if you’re cutting your lifeblood — and that’s the skills and experience your workforce delivers.” For the CEO, it’s about the community: “These are people we went to school with,” he said. “We go to church with them. We see them in the same restaurant. Indeed, a lot of us have married local girls and boys. We could be anywhere. But we are in Warroad.”

Can you think of any former business executives who made their livelihood off engaging in mass layoffs? If not, you need to read Benjamin Wallace-Wells’s great profile of Romney’s career at Bain Capital.

This is the theme Obama has prepared for his campaign: himself, as champion of the middle class, against Romney, as modern-day robber baron. Of course, Romney happens to be rapidly falling behind Newt Gingrich in the race for the GOP nomination, but a campaign against Gingrich is probably something you hope for rather than plan for.

Obama Uses Teddy Roosevelt to Go After Romney