Mitt Romney's been traveling the country making the pitch that he will bring us back to where we were before the Europhilic social democrat took charge -- that Barack Obama's presidency has been a "detour, not a destiny." His watered-down Reaganesque appeal casts voters back to a gauzy time in the recent past when all was right in the world. "It's been a tough three years," he said in Council Bluffs, Iowa before conjuring up the pre-Obama gravy years: "You can remember well when every week you thought about what movie you might take the kids to at the end of the week instead of thinking about can you get enough meals on the table at the end of the week." Wow, who knew 2007 was so fantabulous?
But such nostalgia talk is pretty common fare for Republican candidates. What is striking to me, and what I'm surprised hasn't drawn more attention the past few weeks, is how much Obama himself is turning to a restoration message for his reelection campaign. In his case, of course, the glory years to be reclaimed are not the latter years of the Bush era (though those were good for Barack Obama!) No, it's the early post-World War II era, when the economy was humming along and the nation's prosperity was far more broadly shared than it has been the past few decades. Here's Obama's big Kansas speech last month:
Over the last few decades, the rungs on the ladder of opportunity have grown farther and farther apart, and the middle class has shrunk. You know, a few years after World War II, a child who was born into poverty had a slightly better than 50-50 chance of becoming middle class as an adult. By 1980, that chance had fallen to around 40 percent. And if the trend of rising inequality over the last few decades continues, it's estimated that a child born today will only have a 1-in-3 chance of making it to the middle class -- 33 percent.
It's heartbreaking enough that there are millions of working families in this country who are now forced to take their children to food banks for a decent meal. But the idea that those children might not have a chance to climb out of that situation and back into the middle class, no matter how hard they work? That's inexcusable. It is wrong. It flies in the face of everything that we stand for.
Now fortunately, that's not a future that we have to accept. Because there's another view about how we build a strong middle class in this country -- a view that's truer to our history; a vision that's been embraced in the past by people of both parties for more than 200 years.
And here's this week's State of the Union:
We can do this. I know we can, because we've done it before. At the end of World War II, when another generation of heroes returned home from combat, they built the strongest economy and middle class the world has ever known. My grandfather, a veteran of Patton's Army, got the chance to go to college on the GI Bill. My grandmother, who worked on a bomber assembly line, was part of a workforce that turned out the best products on Earth.
The two of them shared the optimism of a Nation that had triumphed over a depression and fascism. They understood they were part of something larger; that they were contributing to a story of success that every American had a chance to share - the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement.
The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive. No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important. We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules. What's at stake are not Democratic values or Republican values, but American values. We have to reclaim them.
The nostalgia pitch is in stark contrast to the airy "win the future" theme of last year's State of the Union, and also stands in opposition to the whole notion of Obama as a transformational candidate whose very election represented another marker on the forward march of history (after all, one thing that wasn't so hot about those postwar glory years was the fact that candidate Barack Obama would not have had a prayer then.)
But the message's appeal for Obama is plain. Evoking the prosperous postwar years is a way to demonstrate that more broadly shared prosperity, with higher marginal tax rates, is in not incompatible with strong economic growth, and is in fact inextricably linked with it. It reminds voters that basic economic fairness is not some European import, but is embedded in our own not-so-distant past. Now, as my colleague Tim Noah notes, the argument is not made as comprehensively as it could be -- in addition to higher tax rates and greater investment in research, education and infrastructure, that era featured something that apparently must not be named too explicitly in even a Democratic speech these days (hint, it starts with 'u'). But overall, it's a pretty strong encapsulation of what Tony Judt was arguing for in the final years of his life -- a defense and restoration of the safety net and public investments that came to dominate the West in the early postwar decades.
It'll make for an interesting dynamic if Romney wins the nomination: Willard Mitt Romney, the ultimate '50s man, will be going up against a 21st century paragon, Obama, who will be evoking a lost '50s aura on his behalf. Rev up the Delorean, McFly, it's going to be quite a trip.
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