NOWist Wendy Schiller is a professor of political science at Brown University
In crafting this year’s State of the Union, President Obama and his speech writers should pay close attention to Newt Gingrich and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It is not often they are mentioned in the same sentence, but here is how they are linked. Newt Gingrich is a man with a charge account at Tiffany & Co. who has managed to portray Mitt Romney as Gordon Gekko, and sell the “true” Republican Party as the provider of equal economic opportunity. With the added help of Ron Paul, Gingrich is portraying President Obama as a champion of big government and the single greatest obstacle to economic advancement for all. The GOP nomination process has also exposed the deep yearning among voters for candidates who appear to rest on core principles, even if the truth resides elsewhere. And Gingrich is a man who most certainly understands the “vision thing” and who has presented a roadmap for undermining the Democratic Party’s hold as the champion of working and middle class Americans.
Objectively, President Obama’s record can be portrayed as good for big business, e.g. banks and auto companies, and not particularly effective for the average job seeker. In an era of bad economic times, where unchaining health insurance from employment should make sense, the GOP has been very successful in painting health care reform as a big government mandate that denies individual freedom. And despite the fact that he hailed from Chicago, Obama’s biggest support still lies in the East and West coasts leaving him open to charges of being a “flyover” president – one whose policies literally ignore the middle of the country.
President Obama has to use Tuesday night’s SOTU speech to counter the increasingly popular impression among voters that government is an ineffective and corrupt enterprise. Obama should draw his own roadmap connecting his policies and the impact they have had on the average American’s daily life. He must also paint the picture of what could have been, and what might still be, if those policies are repealed. And it is here that Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s words can help. At the start of his first reelection year, 1936, Roosevelt had already enacted most of the major domestic policies of the New Deal, including regulation of the financial markets, Social Security, and the National Labor Relations Act. But even with a Democrat- controlled Congress, he recognized that conservative Democrats and Republicans were angling to repeal or weaken these programs. Roosevelt addressed those efforts head on in his January 3, 1936 State of the Union address where he made the argument that government could empower and protect individuals at the same time and that purely unfettered capitalism would be a tool for oppression rather than advancement:
“Our resplendent economic autocracy does not want to return to that individualism of which they prate, even though the advantages under that system went to the ruthless and the strong. They realize that…we have built up new instruments of public power. In the hands of a people’s Government this power is wholesome and proper. But in the hands of political puppets of an economic autocracy such power would provide shackles for the liberties of the people. Give them their way and they will take the course of every autocracy of the past —power for themselves, enslavement for the public….Their weapon is the weapon of fear…such fear as they instill today is not a natural fear, a normal fear; it is a synthetic, manufactured, poisonous fear that is being spread subtly, expensively and cleverly….”
The 2012 State of the Union speech has to be President (not candidate) Obama’s best speech yet, showing the characteristics of leadership that the American people seem to be craving at the moment. He can remind voters that he has essentially ended two wars while staying aggressive in the fight against terrorism, and that he has stemmed the tide of an economic downturn that threatened the very fabric of the nation. In doing so, President Obama could shape a coherent and unified argument in favor of the Democratic Party’s core principles as the better choice for Americans in 2012 and beyond. No easy feat, but letting the past be a guide may help.