President Obama speaks at Osawatomie High School in Kansas on Tuesday. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters )
"This isn't about class warfare," said President Obama on Tuesday, in his speech at Osawatomie High School in Osawatomie, Kan. But in fact, the president for the first time dived into many of the themes that have been urged on him by left-wing class warriors: the disappearing middle class, "the breathtaking greed of a few," "insurance companies that jacked up people's premiums with impunity," "mortgage lenders that tricked families into buying homes they couldn't afford" and so on. We can't "go back to business as usual" — a universally endorsed principle at all times.
As Thomas Frank famously pointed out in his 2004 book "What's the Matter With Kansas?" conservatives thrived for many years by stoking the fires of popular resentment against (usually unnamed) elitists who sneer at religion, pursue bizarre sexual practices, join the ACLU but diss the Boy Scouts, burn the flag in their spare time and so on. Then these conservatives cry "class war" when liberals try, with little success, to redirect the populist rhetoric against its more traditional targets of bankers, Wall Street, and big business CEOs.
But just lately — because of the financial crisis of 2008, the scandals that went with it and growing income inequality — financial class-war arguments are gaining more traction and the cultural class war has almost disappeared. When you've been laid off and your kids have moved back into your house after college because they can't find a job either, you start to lose interest in whether or not the National Endowment for the Arts is financing smutty pictures.
My problem with his speech is that the president muddles together a variety of very different categories. There are out-and-out crooks and shysters. There are clever financiers who manipulated the rules and took advantage of loopholes — and ought to be thoroughly ashamed of themselves — but did nothing illegal. There are the very, very rich — the notorious 1%, or 1% of 1% — who have benefited from changes in the economy that they may or may not have had any control over. Then there are the affluent — annual incomes of $250,000 or more a year is as good a benchmark as any — who, before the recession, were doing better and better for reasons no one was entirely sure of, but that they personally had nothing to do with.
Below these people in the Obama taxonomy is the great middle class, who just want to work hard and be rewarded with sufficient means to raise their families, own a house and send their kids to college.
Below them, although not dwelt upon, are the genuinely poor: the homeless, single mothers on welfare, old folks with chronic diseases and so on. Off to the side and surprisingly unmentioned by the president are the holy men and women of American capitalism, small-business owners. They are deserving of every tax break and, by definition, can do no wrong.
For every group Obama criticizes, he also has a "to be sure" passage in which he tries to make clear that he's not talking about you. But if you listen to the music, not the words, you might well think otherwise. A wish to raise taxes on top-bracket taxpayers does not prove that you "hate the rich" or that you're trying to stoke the fires of class warfare. It doesn't mean you define an income of $250,000 as "rich." It simply means that you believe that the people who've been most fortunate in this country are in the best position to contribute more to solving its current financial problems. But this distinction is hard to maintain if you're simultaneously suggesting that there is something ill-gotten about most rich people's gains.
People really resent this. I have a friend, a banker, who voted for Obama in 2008 but now senses that he is being picked on unfairly. Which he is. And he is not pacified by reminders that Obama's grandmother was a banker, as charming and surprising to some as that may be.
Fairness to bankers may not seem like the most pressing issue on the justice agenda. But in addition to being unfair, muddling actual crooks with the innocent affluent makes it hard to claim that raising their taxes isn't punishment for some form of misbehavior. Taxes are not a punishment; they are a source of necessary revenue. But if you tie them to the financial scandal, they sound pretty punitive.
A second big problem with Obama's new approach, as revealed in this speech, is really the biggest economic problem facing America in general. That is, the middle-class sense of entitlement. This is an odd moment in the history of the American economy. We need more government spending (or tax cuts) to spur us out of the doldrums, but we also need less government spending (or tax hikes) to prevent national bankruptcy or at best a long period of stagnation. The official, or semiofficial, game plan is to spend our way out of the danger of recession, and then slam on the brakes and reverse course. The first part is easy, even pleasant; the second part is hard to imagine.
In Obama's speech, he went into great detail about the first part — the spending part — and somehow forgot to even mention the second part, the savings part. Eating dessert first is great fun, but green beans lie ahead.
Michael Kinsley, a former editorial page editor of The Times, is a Bloomberg View columnist.