Screenplays are wonderful. It’s halftime in the Notre Dame locker room at the 1928 Army game, and Notre Dame is losing badly. They’ve been losing badly all season, and Knute Rockne is trying to salvage something from his worst season as a coach at Notre Dame. To inspire the players he tells them the story of the tragic death of the greatest player ever at Notre Dame, George Gipp. The scene opens with the interior of the Notre Dame locker room:
The players, seated with blankets draped over their shoulders, are dejected and silent. The door pushes open and Rockne is wheeled in – he’s an old man now. They look at Rockne in mute apology – then guiltily look away, as if to avoid his eyes. His dark-circled eyes range over the players for a full moment of unbroken silence. Then, quietly, as if the game didn’t matter to him:
ROCKNE: Well, boys… I haven’t a thing to say. Played a great game… all of you. Great game. (He tries to smile.) I guess we just can’t expect to win ’em all. (Rockne pauses and says quietly). I’m going to tell you something I’ve kept to myself for years. None of you ever knew George Gipp. It was long before your time. But you know what a tradition he is at Notre Dame…
(There is gentle, faraway look in his eyes as he recalls the boy’s words). And the last thing he said to me – “Rock,” he said – “sometime, when the team is up against it – and the breaks are beating the boys – tell them to go out there with all they got and win just one for the Gipper…”
(Knute’s eyes become misty and his voice is unsteady as he finishes). “I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock,” he said, “but I’ll know about it – and I’ll be happy.”
There is a hushed stillness as Rockne and the crowd of boys look at each other. In the midst of this tense silence, Rockne quietly says “Alright,” to the men beside him, and his chair is wheeled slowly out of the dressing room.
PLAYER # 12: Well, what are we waiting for?
With a single roar, the players throw off their blankets and rush through the doorway.
The movie is Knute Rockne, All-American – the sappy 1940 biography of the guy, with Pat O’Brien playing Rockne and featuring Ronald Reagan as the dying George Gipp – and course Notre Dame goes on to win the game, just like they did in real life. The rest is pure invention, based on vague memories that Rockne might have said something about George Gipp. It’s more likely he used a chalkboard to go over blocking assignments and defensive alignments, but the Hollywood version is better. Inspiring speeches should make a difference, and it may be that Ronald Reagan learned that from this movie, and what he learned made him president. On the other hand, last year, when Notre Dame faced Alabama in that one big game for the National Championship, it seems they lost 42-14 and no inspiring speech was going to save them. They stank. No one knows what Notre Dame’s coach said to his players at halftime last year – perhaps he gave the same speech – and somewhere George Gipp is still weeping, but he’s quite dead. It’s more likely that inspiring speeches really don’t make much of a difference. That’s Hollywood stuff.
Politicians should know this by now. Inspiring speeches are, at best, delayed time-bombs. They set a tone for what comes later, like Kennedy’s Inauguration Address – Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country, and so on. That notion took some time to sink in. The Peace Corps came later. He didn’t propose that. He just set the tone. Obama’s Keynote Address to the 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston – “there are no Blue States, there are no Red Sates, only the United States” – made him president, four years later. He wasn’t running then. He just set the tone. The time-bomb was ticking. His famous 2009 Cairo Speech – offering the Arab world mutual respect, even if wary, and offering to at least talk about things – may turn out to have been a dud, or we reach an agreement with Iran about their nuclear program, and four or five years later something comes of that speech. Until then, Republicans will continue to say he was cravenly apologizing for America, and that’s is disgusting, or treasonous – but they’ve watched that old Knute Rockne movie too many times. In real life, inspiring speeches have little if any immediate effect – and life isn’t Hollywood. Only Hollywood is Hollywood.
That means Obama just gave another speech about nothing in particular, that only tried to set a tone:
President Obama on Tuesday bemoaned growing income inequality and declining economic opportunity, sounding the populist economic themes that he has invoked at critical moments in his presidency.
“There’s a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility that has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain: that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead,” Obama said at an event hosted by the left-leaning Center for American Progress at an arts and education center in Southeast Washington.
Obama invoked his and wife Michelle’s humble beginnings and the economic activism of past presidents Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt in making the case that the country needs to do more to shrink the wage gap and ensure that children born to poverty have a chance to climb the economic ladder.
On issues such as the minimum wage, immigration, education, healthcare and jobs, Obama said the choices the nation’s political leaders make will have impact years down the road.
The speech itself was full of facts and figures to support the general contention, but short on policy proposals, but maybe that was the whole point. Set the tone. As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent suggests, Obama has done it again:
The speech on inequality that President Obama delivered just now will mostly pass unnoticed by the political world, with Republicans dismissing it as “class warfare” and an effort to distract from Obamacare, and pundits describing it more delicately as a “pivot” away from the law.
But experts who see inequality as one of the most urgent moral, political and economic long term challenges facing the country will see it as one of the most important speeches of the Obama presidency – more ambitious than his similar 2011 speech in Kansas.
“This is a major speech on a topic that American presidents normally stay away from,” Tim Smeeding, an expert on inequality at the University of Wisconsin, tells me, adding that it compares in some ways to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s addresses. “The fact that a sitting president faced with a crowded agenda had the courage to discuss this overarching problem is historic.”
“The decision we make on these issues over the last few years will determine whether our children will grow up in an America where opportunity is real,” he said.
In short, it was a time-bomb, not Knute Rockne inspiring his football team at halftime in 1928 at all, and Obama admitted that:
These trends are bad for our economy. One study finds that growth is more fragile and recessions are more frequent in countries with greater inequality. And that makes sense. When families have less to spend, that means businesses have fewer customers, and households rack up greater mortgage and credit card debt; meanwhile, concentrated wealth at the top is less likely to result in the kind of broadly based consumer spending that drives our economy, and together with lax regulation, may contribute to risky speculative bubbles.
Yeah, well, so what else is new? Kevin Drum puts it this way:
Or, as I like to put it : (1) the rich suck up more and more of the money, (2) eventually they can’t find anything useful to do with it all and start making lots of dodgy loans to stagnating middle-class consumers, (3) this works great for a while, but then (4) kablooey.
Obama’s speech was chock full of statistics, which may or may not have been a good idea, but all of them are probably familiar to anyone… Personally, I was more interested in what kinds of policy changes he wanted us all to get behind.
Drum didn’t find much more than this:
To begin with, we have to continue to relentlessly push a growth agenda… simplifying our corporate tax code in a way that closes wasteful loopholes and ends incentives to ship jobs overseas… a trade agenda that grows exports and works for the middle class… coming together around a responsible budget. …
Step two is making sure we empower more Americans with the skills and education they need… supporting states that have raised standards for teaching and learning… helped more students go to college with grants and loans that go farther than before… innovation that reins in tuition costs… working to connect local businesses with community colleges… making high-quality preschool available to every child in America.
The third part of this middle-class economics is empowering our workers… collective bargaining laws function as they’re supposed to… raise a minimum wage that in real terms right now is below where it was when Harry Truman was in office.
Number four, as I alluded to earlier, we still need targeted programs for the communities and workers that have been hit hardest by economic change… And we’re also going to have to do more for the long-term unemployed.
Fifth, we’ve got to revamp retirement to protect Americans in their golden years… encourage private savings and shore up the promise of Social Security for future generations.
Drum is not impressed:
I understand that even a fairly anodyne prescription like this is going to get the Fox News crowd all lathered up about how Obama is finally tearing away the disguise and revealing his true Marxist colors, but still. It’s kind of weak tea, isn’t it? Maybe it’s not reasonable to expect an awful lot more from a sitting US president, but I guess I’m not feeling all that reasonable these days.
I sure wish there had been at least one genuinely big, newsworthy proposal here. It might have no chance of going anywhere, but then again, neither does most of this other stuff. At least something big might have started driving the conversation in a more interesting direction.
Drum is not alone, as John Cassidy sees the same thing:
In talking about the causes of rising inequality, he made the usual references to global competition and technological change, but without adding anything fresh. In laying out his policy prescriptions, he talked about promoting a “growth agenda,” which also sounded familiar: reforming the corporate tax code, eliminating loopholes, and using some of the money saved to invest in things like infrastructure and scientific research. As he has before, he came out in favor of strengthening the labor laws and raising the minimum wage. (By how much he didn’t say.) He spoke of improving educational standards, making pre-school programs more widely available, and pursuing a trade agenda that “works for the middle class.”
Most of these policies are individually worthwhile. But with the possible exception of a big hike in the minimum wage – a little one wouldn’t have much impact – they are mainly small-bore measures. Even if every one of them were enacted, which isn’t going to happen, it’s by no means clear that they would halt, much less reverse, the over-all trends that Obama highlighted.
The whole thing was a big yawn, and even if Obama were to get all this stuff, as vague as it is, it would do no real good, and Matthew Yglesias thinks Obama wasn’t talking about the real problem:
The biggest applause line of the speech was about raising the minimum wage, which is great, but also doesn’t help you very much if your current wage is $0. Delivering a stem-winder about the need for Janet Yellen to raise the growth rate of nominal income in the United States might not have been very smart, but yadda-yaddaing past mass unemployment is odd.
The people suffering the most in this country aren’t the people’s whose wages are stagnating, it’s the people who don’t have any wages at all. And the biggest thing stopping the people whose wages are stagnating from demanding a raise is that there are all these unemployed people out there who’d love to have their crappy low-paying jobs.
At the Atlantic, Derek Thompson is on the same page:
Social Security and Medicare, two of the most popular government programs today, work on the theory that there is a virtue to universalism. Obamacare is, well, slightly popular at the moment, but it works on the same principle. On jobs, however, it cannot be said the U.S. government has seriously considered universal (or, at least, full) employment anything near to a priority. We simply gave up early. It’s good and right to talk about income inequality for American workers. But when 20 million people are unemployed or marginally attached to the labor force, you’re going to have an awful income inequality crisis, no matter what your minimum and median wages look like.
Daniel Gross is just depressed by it all:
Obama – and other people who focus on Washington – are missing the forest for the thicket of policies. The real problem is that companies in the U.S. do not pay enough, and that they have conditioned themselves (and their investors, and board, and employees, and politicians) not to raise wages even as their profits and cash holdings rise to record levels.
Gross thinks Obama is talking to the wrong people:
Consider that corporate profits have soared from $1.2 trillion in 2009 to about $2 trillion this year, and that between the end of 2006 and mid-2013, corporate America’s cash holdings rose from $850 billion to $1.48 trillion. And yet the response to this remarkable turnaround has been effectively to reduce wages. Median household income in 2012 was below where it was in 1999, and has risen in only five of the last 12 years.
This is not a problem that can be corroded by a higher minimum wage, or stronger unions, or universal pre-K. Rather, it would require a wholesale change of heart among America’s business class. They’d have to start taking pride in offering higher wages each year – rather than, say, offering higher dividends or stock buybacks each year. They’ve have to make it part of their strategic mission to aspire to pay above the median, and thus help drag wages up.
Okay, how does one bring about a wholesale change of heart among America’s business class? That’s going to take a lot of speeches, a lot of those slowly-ticking delayed time-bombs and then a lot of waiting, probably for nothing.
The Washington Monthly’s Ed Kilgore speaks to that:
As pretty much everyone knows who’s being honest about it, a crucial factor in the success or failure of conservative backlash against efforts to extend the social safety net is whether they can be depicted as morally offensive to people who really have little or nothing in common with the wealthy and powerful Americans being asked to pay the freight. And that’s why racial appeals are so important in mobilizing downscale white folks to view themselves as victims or rivals of those people benefiting from our barebones version of the European welfare state.
So the “white working class” is one occasionally lost constituency for efforts to fight inequality.
Everyone who isn’t at the top is now a lost constituency, but Kilgore cites Tim Noah with another twist on this:
A century ago the country’s plutocrats, plagued by violent protest from socialists and anarchists, feared that if economic inequality got too far out of hand the angry masses might overthrow capitalism. That obliged them to at least pay lip service to some vague notion of equality. And 50, 40, even 30 years ago, the country’s elites understood that too much inequality would harm the U.S.’s global competition with Soviet Russia for hearts and minds.
Today, the Cold War is over and there’s no chance that capitalism will be overthrown. With the dangers of income inequality no longer self-evident, many Americans wonder why it’s still an issue. President Obama’s speech took a stab at answering that question. Given income inequality’s continuing rise, it probably won’t be the last time he’s called upon to do so.
Obama is just starting. He didn’t try to scare America’s business class with warnings that those revolting “other” people might actually be revolting soon. He was being gentle, for now, but there is that possibility of some sort of mass uprising, maybe.
Kilgore doesn’t see that happening:
There are some conservatives, mostly those of a religious bent, who worry to varying degrees about a society of ever-growing inequality. But for most, the save-your-own-skin rationale Noah is talking about is entirely lacking. This could be an additional and virtually unnoticed reason for the rise of radical conservatism of late: it’s no longer considered dangerously self-destructive for representatives of our economic ruling classes to talk about getting rid of the New Deal and Great Society programs and making America an experiment in unregulated capitalism.
There’s no cost to income inequality now, so there will be no workers’ revolution, but at the New Yorker, Amy Davidson talks to Robert Putnam, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, about Obama’s vague proposals, and he argues that’s not how things work anyway:
From Putnam’s perspective, “any of those things is helpful” – including solutions outside of government – “but most important is a national understanding of the problem by ordinary people.” He compared the present moment, statistically and politically, to the Progressive Era, which also had a convergence of wealth, inequality, and a sense that the country had somehow become corrupt.
“And then, in about ten years, America fixed those problems,” Putnam said. “Child-labor laws, support for mothers, not to mention regulation of business, clean food. Government did it, in the face of a prevailing ideology of laissez-faire – social Darwinism, as it was called.” What made the difference was a moral shift: “People said, ‘This is not the way it should be. This is not America.'” He thought it was happening again.
All that good stuff – including a wholesale change of heart among America’s business class, even if most of them were only shamed into faking it – did take ten years. Obama had to start somewhere. That’s why Ezra Klein calls this perhaps the single best economic speech of his presidency:
That’s in part because it exists for no other reason than to lay out Obama’s view of the economy. His other speeches on the subject have been about passing legislation, defining campaign themes, or positioning himself against Republicans. But Obama’s done running for office. He’s not getting anything through this Congress. And he’s not negotiating with John Boehner. This is just what he thinks.
Obama also thinks that as general as all this is, and familiar, we all might want to think about these things:
I believe this is the defining challenge of our time: Making sure our economy works for every working American. It’s why I ran for President. It was at the center of last year’s campaign. It drives everything I do in this office. And I know I’ve raised this issue before, and some will ask why I raise the issue again right now. I do it because the outcomes of the debates we’re having right now — whether it’s healthcare, or the budget, or reforming our housing and financial systems — all these things will have real, practical implications for every American. And I am convinced that the decisions we make on these issues over the next few years will determine whether or not our children will grow up in an America where opportunity is real.
That means that Obama is quite aware that he’s no Knute Rockne rallying his football players to go out there, right now, and win one for the Gipper – or Pat O’Brien pretending to rally a bunch of second-rate young actors pretending to be football players, on an air-conditioned soundstage down on the corner of Gower and Melrose. This is real life, and here the game is long, if it’s even a game at all. Yeah, the speech is short on specific and immediate policy proposals – the coach isn’t giving specific block assignments on diagramming a trick play. So what? That’s not what the best political speeches are ever about. The best are subtle time-bombs, set to go off much later. And that’s an entirely different kind of Hollywood movie.