Ron Brownstein and Charles Krauthammer on President Obama’s Osawatomie Speech

It isn’t too surprising that Charles Krauthammer didn’t think well of Barack Obama’s recent speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, as he has been a consistent critic of the president’s record. He offers an arresting formulation at the end of his column:

In Kansas, Obama lamented that millions “are now forced to take their children to food banks.” You have to admire the audacity. That’s the kind of damning observation the opposition brings up when you’ve been in office three years. Yet Obama summoned it to make the case for his reelection!

Why? Because, you see, he bears no responsibility for the current economic distress. It’s the rich. And, like Horatius at the bridge, Obama stands with the American masses against the soulless plutocrats.

This is populism so crude that it channels not Teddy Roosevelt so much as Hugo Chavez. But with high unemployment, economic stagnation and unprecedented deficits, what else can Obama say?

Many will find Krauthammer’s comparison of President Obama to Hugo Chavez inflammatory. He introduces it, however, as a contrast with Theodore Roosevelt’s populism, defined as a “new nationalism” that aimed to more tightly-integrate a rapidly industrializing, urbanizing society. As an ideal-type, Chavez’s populism really is somewhat different. 

An essential part of Chavez’s political identity is his role as a polarizer, i.e., as an active proponent of a narrative in which Venezuelan society is profoundly divided between the suffering masses and an elite that is making every effort to foil him and undermine his ambitious plans for social transformation.

There is at least some truth to Chavez’s narrative. Though opposition to his regime has grown, it is rooted in the wealthier stratum of the population, which has long seen his brand of populism as a threat to secure property rights as well as to various civil and political liberties that have grown far more tenuous since his rise power. Chavez’s opponents really have worked to arrest his attempts at a social and political transformation of Venezuelan society into a more rigidly socialist regime, and to form new geopolitical alignments aimed at undermining what we might call the U.S.-led global liberal order. I tend to think that the opposition is more than justified, but this view is not universally held. 

Barack Obama’s politics are nothing like Hugo Chavez’s. The president is a moderate social democrat, who would be comfortable in Canada’s New Democratic or Liberal parties, the British Labour party, etc. As Ronald Brownstein observes, however, Barack Obama’s recent populist turn does not rest on an appeal to national unity. Like many other moderate social democrats, however, he seems increasingly drawn towards a mental model in which he defines his opposition as a wealthy elite and its unwitting pawns. Unlike President Bill Clinton, who spoke often of “building a bridge to the 21st century,” a vision somewhat more compatible with a Rooseveltian “new nationalism,” the Obama vision is somewhat more antagonistic. 

How would we characterize, say, George W. Bush’s populism? Is it TR or is it Chavez? This is one potential objection to Krauthammer’s comparison: surely there are gradations in between. 

Brownstein’s device in a recent column is a comparison between Theodore Roosevelt’s Osawatomie speech and Barack Obama’s speech in the same small city:

Throughout his speaking tour that year, TR insisted that national unity was an essential precondition to progress. In Osawatomie, Roosevelt offered a rousing call for mutual concession and shared sacrifice to confront the nation’s many challenges. “I … ask that we work in a spirit of broad and far-reaching nationalism,” he memorably declared that day. “We are all Americans. Our common interests are as broad as the continent.”

Obama quoted that line late in his speech, but as an afterthought. Obama’s tone was more confrontational toward both the GOP and the wealthy; he sounded less like Theodore Roosevelt and more like Franklin Roosevelt railing against “economic royalists” in 1936. That’s deeply ironic, of course, because as a senator and a presidential candidate, Obama made the case for national reconciliation as eloquently as TR ever did. But as president, Obama’s commitment to that cause has been more intermittent and qualified.

Brownstein emphasizes that Republicans deserves much if not most of the blame:

Obama hardly deserves all (or even most) of the blame for the hyperpartisanship hobbling the capital. He is facing an implacably ideological Republican Party. And the major forces polarizing our politics long predate him: Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush hoped to bridge the nation’s differences, but each left with Washington more divided than when he arrived. Obama seems likely to share that fate, whenever he departs. As our national politics succumbs to unstinting partisan confrontation, we are drifting at mounting cost ever further from Theodore Roosevelt’s majestic vision of a nation inspired to collective action by its common aspirations.

My own view is somewhat different. Because the president’s analytical lens is flawed, his shift towards more confrontational rhetoric was preordained. As he often reminds audiences, he literally can’t understand why his political opponents think that tax increases are not the best way to yield fiscal and organizational discipline, or why tax increases would only be acceptable in the context of Rivlin-Domenici-style reform of Medicare. These ideas strike him as so baffling that he seems convinced that they flow from some absence of public spiritedness. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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