On Tuesday, in Osawatomie, Kan., President Obama gave a glorious and powerful speech that was a testament to the enduring appeal of one of our greatest political figures: Theodore Roosevelt. The president harnessed the economic principles of the Progressive Era and applied them to the economic realities of today. He made an argument for a dynamic government that invests based upon principles of equity and opportunity for all; a government that fosters a genuine robust capitalism based on principles of true competition and market integrity. The difference between the president’s vision of government and that of his potential Republican presidential opponents is vast. The difference between the president’s speech and his own governance over the past three years is, unfortunately, only marginally smaller.
The president has tried to wear the mantle of several presidents recently: Truman, for his attacks on a do-nothing congress; Eisenhower for his careful centrism; Clinton, for his willingness to invoke executive authority when the legislative branch failed. Yet it is Theodore Roosevelt whom President Obama should stick with, Theodore Roosevelt whose passion and principles of true reform have the most relevance today.
Obama’s speech was a welcome tonic, an indication of a new direction that might be taken. So who deserves credit for nudging the president to change his focus and tone? Occupy Wall Street. The president’s speech—which might be viewed as the opening salvo of the presidential race—was defined by OWS. Growth, fairness, and opportunity have replaced deficit reduction as the central theme of American politics. I even wonder whether Judge Rakoff would have issued his wonderful opinion rejecting as inadequate the SEC-Citibank settlement without the foundation laid by OWS. Judge Rakoff’s opinion is the judicial analogue to OWS: a visceral statement of discontent; a judicial “I have had enough of this”—albeit in more modulated prose.
What OWS has accomplished—its organizational and ideological deficits notwithstanding—brings to mind the famous Margaret Mead quotation: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” That small group—and we should not forget how few were actually involved in OWS—has altered American political debate in a few short months.
But two urgent questions remain: How will the president turn his newfound devotion to progressive era principles into actions? And what will OWS do next?
The test of the White House’s dedication will be the mortgage crisis. It is still the area of greatest concern to middle Americans, and still the area where creativity has been absent from the White House’s proposals. The president must take the plunge and demand significant mortgage reductions if the economy is to be revived and equity is to be addressed. There are plenty of interesting ideas for how to do this from all sides of the political spectrum. See the conservative Martin Feldstein’s New York Times op-ed on Oct. 12, 2011, and the more liberal Alan Blinder’s views in the Wall Street Journal on Oct. 20, 2011.
OWS also needs to choose its future. Here’s one idea. This past week the filibuster has once again deprived the public of candidates—one judicial, one for the newly formed consumer protection bureau—who had more than 50 supporters in the Senate and the backing of the president. The continued tyranny of 40, the number of senators who can block action—perhaps representing as little as 10 percent of the public—must be ended.
If OWS wants a government where the will of the majority will not be blocked by a powerful but small minority, demanding that Democratic leaders seek fundamental filibuster reform might be a great place to start. The chant “end the filibuster” might sound a bit technical, but the chant “save our democracy” would not. OWS has introduced the numbers 99 and 1 into the American political lexicon. Now it should do the same for 40 and 51.