How President Obama’s Speech Today Explains His Presidency

CREDIT: Carolyn Kaster/AP Images

“Let me end by addressing the elephant in the room here,” President Obama closed his speech at THEARC Theatre today, “which is the seeming inability to get anything done in Washington these days.” This wasn’t just arch wordplay (though bravo, White House speechwriters): the 6,646 thousand word speech used the word “Republicans” exactly twice.

The choice to play down partisan politics says a lot about Obama’s speech, and more broadly, his Presidency. Obama is someone who believes moderate solutions really can solve huge problems, but faces an opposition who sees tinkering with the welfare state as the moral equivalent of rewiring a murder machine. He’s a technocrat in an ideological age, a framing that’s crucial to understanding what’s actually going on in the CAP speech.

As befitting a speech hosted by a policy shop like CAP, Obama’s speech was more intellectual than your garden variety barnburner. It was peppered with references to studies and statistics: this bit — “a new study shows that disparities in education, mental health, obesity, absent fathers, isolation from church, isolation from community groups — these gaps are now as much about growing up rich or poor as they are about anything else” — should give you a taste of the general flavor. That line was part of a fairly complex, especially by politician standards, argument for why poverty isn’t primarily a problem about race and racism.

These wonky arguments were aimed at showing one central point: income inequality is “the defining challenge of our time.” “The basic bargain at the heart of our economy has frayed,” Obama said, challenging “the very essence of who we are as a people.” Rising inequality threatens economic growth, family stability, and the very functioning of American democracy itself. It’s “a fundamental threat to the American Dream, our way of life, and what we stand for around the globe.”

Now, this “pinpointing the problem”-type rhetoric is usually a politician’s preamble to what really matters: the policy proposals. But sitting in the audience, the energy of Obama’s speech felt reversed. The fiery rhetoric about inequality gave way to policy proposals like raising the minimum wage that are quite good as a bundle, but not novel. This wasn’t a speech rolling out a new agenda, but rather one declaiming the moral urgency of the one the administration already had.

It was the right choice of focus. President Obama, like basically all mainstream progressives, has no quarrel with the basic structure of American capitalism. He supports updating the system to address the challenges combining to create deadly inequality — failing schools, a broken immigration system, stagnant wages, and the like — without totally revamping the role of the state in the American economy.

But that’s not how Republicans see it. Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat gave to my mind the definitive explanation of why liberals like President Obama and today’s conservatives think of Obama’s proposed welfare state reforms so differently:

To liberals and many moderates, it often seems like the right gets what it wants in these arguments and then just gets more extreme, demanding cuts atop cuts, concessions atop concessions, deregulation upon deregulation, tax cuts upon tax cuts. But to many conservatives, the right has never come remotely close to getting what it actually wants, whether in the Reagan era or the Gingrich years or now the age of the Tea Party — because what it wants is an actually smaller government, as opposed to one that just grows somewhat more slowly than liberals and the left would like. And this goal only ends up getting labeled as “extreme” in our debates, conservatives lament, because the right has never succeeded in dislodging certain basic assumptions about government established by F.D.R. and L.B.J. — under which a slower rate of spending growth is a “draconian cut,” an era of “small government” is one which in which the state grows immensely in absolute terms but holds steady as a share of G.D.P., and a rich society can never get rich enough to need less welfare spending per capita than it did when it was considerably poorer.

Obviously, I don’t think this is an accurate description of post-New Deal history as a matter of fact, but as an account of the modern conservative worldview, it’s spot-on. Republicans see Obama’s proposals for a moderately bigger welfare state not as patches to an aging political operating system, but as accelerations of the very trend they most fundamentally oppose. The debate between Obama and the Congressional GOP isn’t about how to use the state to expand access to health care or pre-k; it’s whether the government should be doing those things at all.

So Obama delivers a speech that wasn’t explicitly political, but amounts to a broad-based defense of the welfare state. If Obama’s correct, and market-caused inequality really is a threat to everything that makes America great, then there’s no choice but to expand the government’s efforts to rein in the private sector’s excesses.

Technocrat that he is, Obama wages this war by citing studies, not waving bloody partisan shirts. The CAP speech represented the former professor’s most authentic motivation for his politics: he believes that’s what the research tells him. Whether or not you agree with him (and many reasonable people read the same research quite differently), that’s the terrain the president wants to fight his battle on. And while he might prefer to be debating how high the minimum wage increase should be, rather than whether we should raise it at all, that’s where he’s stuck.