Jared Bernstein and Two Presidents

President Obama giving a speech in Kansas
President Obama Wows 'Em in Kansas, 12-6-11 (image courtesy of LA Times)

The two Presidents in question being Obama (of course) and Theodore Roosevelt.

Over at his blog, the fantastic economist (and Joe Biden’s former top economic adviser) Jared Bernstein has a post up called O goes YOYO. A little bit of explanation. “YOYO” is the term coined by Bernstein himself to describe economic policies and doctrine of post-’80s Republicans; the trickle-down, supply-side, “you’re on your own” (hence: “YOYO) idea of economics that has bedeviled us for at least three decades now. He seems happy that the President is talking in such explicitly confrontational terms about the Republicans’ failed economic ideas. I am, too. It was a typically excellent speech on Obama’s part. And it was significant beyond the usual because it represented a much-closer embrace by the President of the themes of Occupy Wall Street (even though, as usual, the President tried to split the difference and find the “middle” by trying to downplay or deny at one point the Occupiers’ central theme of 99% vs 1%).

Bernstein loved it, and took the opportunity to point out much that is wrong with the “YOYO” economics of the right wing. He’s entirely correct, too. But Prof. Bernstein closed with the following sentences: “For now, I think the President is speaking to the American people in a way that is extremely resonant to them.  He’s right about this stuff, and people know it.”

I agree, the President IS right, and people DO know it. But there’s an additional, glaring problem Bernstein didn’t address in his overview. I began a reply at his site, but quickly realized it would be longer than his word-limit on replies allowed, so I’m posting it here:

Yep, great speech – again. You’re absolutely correct in stating that the President is “speaking to the American people in a way that is extremely resonant to them.”

Only, it would have resonated with the public to an even greater degree back in ’09, in the immediate wake of the utter collapse of the economic theories underpinning YOYO economics (as well as the economy itself). People were not just ready to have a serious conversation about making fundamental changes to the way our economic system is setup (or, rather, has been steadily perverted by the YOYOs over the last three decades), they were near-desperate to have that conversation.

But that conversation didn’t happen then, and we’ve been stuck in neutral (at best) ever since as a result.

We elected a man who explicitly promised “fundamental transformation,” and many of us took the President at his word, and figured that starting point A on any agenda of fundamental transformation (given the current circumstances) would be the above-mentioned conversation about how the economic system (and the role of government) had to change.

Three full years later, with banksters returning to business-as-usual despite the passage of Dodd-Frank (with the aid of the YOYO Republicans in the Senate), we’ve only now begun to seriously engage that conversation…and I worry how much of the energy and immediacy which would have provided the greatest impetus for change has dissipated in the intervening months. Also, let’s not forget WHY we’re having this conversation now: because of Occupy Wall Street. Because a group of citizens realized, to paraphrase what Mario Savio once said during a different time of struggle, that they’d come to the time when the operation of the machine had become so odious, made them so sick at heart, that they could no longer take part. And they’ve begun to put their bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus. And they’ve indicated to the people who run the machine, to the people who own it, that unless we’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!

THAT is why this conversation is only beginning to happen now. Yes, that was a great speech the President gave yesterday in Kansas. Reminiscent, in fact of many similarly great speeches of strident cadence he gave during 2007 and 2008. Why not so many such speeches (or so much action on the subject of these speeches between then and now? Your guess is as good as mine – no, it’s probably better, since you worked in this White House. But I can tell you with near-certainty why we’re starting to hear those speeches and that cadence again now: it’s once again campaign season. Ask yourselves this, though: would we even be hearing the themes in this speech, given from this location, at this point in time, had Occupy Wall Street not happened as it did?

Sad to say it, but as George W. Bush once memorably gaffed: fool me once, shame on….shame on you…fool me – can’t get fooled again. As Yves Smith notes sourly today, this is the rollout of Hope-‘N’-Change 2.0, consciously staged to echo Teddy Roosevelt.

One one hand, it’s a brilliant idea from a campaign standpoint: Teddy Roosevelt is remembered as a tough-on-robber-barons trustbuster- and ALSO, of course, as a Republican (bonus bi-partisan cred!). Channeling TR at this juncture might very well make Obama seem like a similarly tough-on-entrenched-interests kind of President, just the thing he’ll need next November, with the economy still sputtering along (and now fearing Euro-contagion).

But let’s not lose sight of the fact that emulation of such a beloved President as Teddy Roosevelt as a campaign strategy is also not without its risks. Let’s hope that the YOYO Republicans don’t cotton to the idea that if President Obama wants to be thought of as TR-like, people may expect him to not just sound like TR, but to also (as TR famously said) be carrying a big stick – and not just when it comes to ordering Navy Seals into Pakistan but right here at home with the masters of the universe and the YOYOs and the banksters.

We’ve waited three years for that action from the President on that front, and we’ve come up mostly empty. Obama’s sole contribution to Dodd-Frank, for example, was not vetoing it. Meanwhile, opportunities make real progress by doing things like recess-appointing Elizabeth Warren to head the CFPB simply floated by, missed. Until finally, it took a group of foreclosure victims and the 99wk+ unemployed to even begin to truly start both the conversation and the actions we ought to have had in early 2009 as a response to the collapse of the Bush administration’s (and YOYO economists’) ruinous effect on the economy.

Though there’s no question in my mine that I intend to vote for President Obama in November (on the basis that any Republican would be orders of magnitude worse), I honestly don’t know if I think regular, less politically-aware voters will believe on the basis of one speech by the President (or even a dozen of them over the next eleven months) that President Obama will do much on this score if given a second term. Certainly, many of the folks at Occupy Wall Street are skeptical on that question. They look back at the last three years, and it’s easy to understand where their skepticism comes from.

President Obama was never going to get many GOP votes. He got a few in 2008 who had been shocked at the utter collapse of the YOYO GOP worldview, but the bulk of the GOTea Party didn’t – and won’t ever – vote for Obama, even if he cured cancer while erasing the national debt. That fact alone will make 2012 competitive at the very least. What I worry about when I see the President consciously adopting the language and ideas of Occupy Wall Street and relating them back to Teddy Roosevelt is that non-GOP voters will remember that Teddy Roosevelt was, above all else, a man of action. And actions, as everyone knows, speak louder than words; even pretty-sounding ones in a speech by the President.

We know you can give great speeches, Barack. Make us believe the words you speak aren’t just designed to get you over the top on election day. Go show us, by your actions, that the ideas you crib from Occupy Wall Street are more than just words to you. The public was ready for you to take TR’s legendary “big stick” out of mothballs in 2009. Today, in 2012, they need you to. And if you want to win, you need to, as well.

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