As an obscure Illinois state senator, as a United States senator and as president, Mr. Obama has even used the same phrases to describe a communitarian credo rooted in American tradition, but vying always in his telling with a Darwinian alternative: you’re-on-your-own economics.
And now he is framing the 2012 election as a choice between the two approaches.
“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, and everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same set of rules,” Mr. Obama said as he opened his annual address.
He began with the story of his grandparents — just as he did at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, in the keynote speech that made him famous. After World War II, his grandparents went to college on the G.I. Bill of Rights, bought a house with a federal loan and knew their grandson could go to the best schools, with aid if needed.
“They understood they were part of something larger,” Mr. Obama said Tuesday, “that they were contributing to a story of success that every American had a chance to share.”
“The defining issue of our time,” he added, “is how to keep that promise alive.”
Mr. Obama similarly challenged the 2004 convention audience: “Democrats, Republicans, independents, I say to you tonight, we have more work to do.”
“People don’t expect government to solve all their problems,” he said then. “But they sense, deep in their bones, that with just a slight change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life.”
He added: “For alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga: a belief that we are all connected as one people.”
Mr. Obama’s argument reflects a long-standing debate, one that is especially divisive now, given Americans’ polarization.
Yet voters are conflicted, as hostile toward government in the abstract as at any time in the history of polling, but demanding of government services, not least Medicare and Social Security.
On Tuesday Mr. Obama claimed a historical pedigree for his proposals, including initiatives to promote manufacturing, clean energy, infrastructure, education, research, mortgage refinancing and a tax code that asks more of the wealthiest Americans, both for fairness and for additional revenues to finance government “investments.”
As precedents, besides the G.I. Bill and housing aid that benefited his grandparents, Mr. Obama cited Abraham Lincoln, who backed railroads and land-grant colleges; the public works of the Depression era; and the interstate highways built after World War II.
Such examples have been staples of his speeches for years. Mr. Obama typically traces American history from the Civil War and industrial age up to the current era of technological change, globalization and financial crisis. At each juncture, he argues, government has faced a choice between doing nothing or giving a hand to businesses and individuals and setting “rules of the road” to curb market excesses.
“We have faced this choice before,” Mr. Obama said as a new United States senator in June 2005, when he delivered the graduation address at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill.
With the rapid growth of cities and industries in the late 1800s, he said, “we had to decide: Do we do nothing and allow captains of industry and robber barons to run roughshod over the economy and workers by competing to see who can pay the lowest wages at the worst working conditions?”
America decided otherwise, he said, breaking up monopolies, allowing unions, establishing “basic rules for the market” and creating public schools.
In Republicans’ response to Mr. Obama after his speech on Tuesday, Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana said: “He seems to sincerely believe we can build a middle class out of government jobs paid for with borrowed dollars. In fact, it works the other way. A government as big and bossy as this one is maintained on the backs of the middle class and those who hope to join it.” NYT