How strange that the Obama White House decided not to go for the full Elizabeth Warren during last night’s State of the Union address. Oh sure, lots of talk about fairness. And the president did propose raising taxes on people making a million dollars a year. But I expected a lot worse, at least rhetorically, given his populist speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, last December. That was a full-throated assault—full of straw men, exaggeration, sarcasm, and ridicule—on the nation’s 30-year turn toward more pro-market policies such as cutting taxes and regulation. Here’s one memorable bit:
“The market will take care of everything,” they tell us. If we just cut more regulations and cut more taxes—especially for the wealthy—our economy will grow stronger. Now, it’s a simple theory. And we have to admit, it’s one that speaks to our rugged individualism and our healthy skepticism of too much government. That’s in America’s DNA. And that theory fits well on a bumper sticker. (Laughter.) But here’s the problem: It doesn’t work. It has never worked. (Applause.) It didn’t work when it was tried in the decade before the Great Depression. It’s not what led to the incredible postwar booms of the ‘50s and ‘60s. And it didn’t work when we tried it during the last decade. (Applause.) I mean, understand, it’s not as if we haven’t tried this theory.
At the heart of Obamanomics is a belief that rising inequality—due to offshoring, technology, tax cuts, and financial deregulation—is at the heart of America’s economic woes. So given that, I expected to hear something more like this now-famous monologue by Warren:
I hear all this, you know, ‘Well, this is class warfare, this is whatever. No. There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police-forces and fire-forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory—and hire someone to protect against this—because of the work the rest of us did.
But this as close as Obama got, smartly linking it to the Navy Seal operation that killed OBL:
No one built this country on their own. This nation is great because we built it together. This nation is great because we worked as a team. This nation is great because we get each other’s backs.
So why did Obama back off? Mickey Kaus thinks the Osawatomie speech was just an effort to pump up the liberal base, but such a harangue would repel the rest of America. Ultimately, we’re still an aspirational nation. So score one for the pollsters. But I have no doubt that the president, in his heart, is really Osawatomie Obama, which is why he rejected his own debt panel and its call to cut government spending and lower tax rates. And no doubt we’ll hear a lot more about taxing the rich during the general election, especially if Mitt Romney is the nominee.