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What Would a Truly Anti-Business Presidential Speech Sound Like?

Obama Means Business

For the last two years, Barack Obama has been saddled with the stigma of being “anti-business”. This certainly has at least something to do with the maneuverings of his political opponents, yet it seems to have become a generally accepted notion. It’s why he’s been publicly chummy with reps from some of the nation’s largest corporations over the last few weeks, and why he appointed GE CEO Jeff Immelt to lead a jobs task force — to reinvigorate confidence in the private sector. In his State of the Union speech today, he’ll attempt to appease the business world that he’s allegedly been so unkind to.

But how is Obama “bad for business”? The reforms he helped enact on the financial sector irked bankers, sure — but attempting to limit the amount of risk banks can take, and aspiring to a stabler investment culture should bode well for most business owners. There’s the fact that Obama is a Democrat, and had the support of the labor unions during the election — but I can’t think of a single time the president has been vehement about worker’s rights.

Now, Obama’s individual policies are likely more unfriendly to business than a Republican president’s would have been. But let’s zoom out, and look at the bigger picture: in the face of a collapsing economy, Obama orchestrated a stimulus plan that prevented a depression, provided funding that kept many small businesses afloat, and rescued ailing corporations (some of whom were responsible for causing the mess). The New York Times’ Timothy Egan went so far as to argue that Obama saved capitalism.

Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself?

Many who continue to believe Obama is a socialist would disagree, of course. But I’d implore them to look a little closer. If you think Obama’s bad for business, then what would you make of rhetoric like this, employed some years ago in another president’s famous oratory:

the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and have abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.

True, they have tried. But their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit, they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They only know the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.

Yes, the money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of that restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit …Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy, the moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits …

Recognition of that falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit; and there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing.”

Now that I could see being perceived as “unfriendly to business”. That’s from FDR’s inaugural address in 1933 — he was the first president to take office after the Great Depression had gone into full swing. By way of contrast, here’s Obama’s inaugural address http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/20/us/politics/20text-obama.html — the first president sworn in after the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Here’s the fieriest he got:

Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age … Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched. But this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control. The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.

The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart — not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

Where FDR lambasted the bankers who steered the economy into ruin, Obama said it was kind of all of our faults, and then took the opportunity to reassure everybody that the market economy still worked just fine. Clearly, a different tack.

Politics of Business in the Age of Obama

These speeches reveal, among other things, just how far the nation’s attitudes towards big business have shifted — for FDR, railing against bankers and corporatists, and admonishing them for their greed and bad decision-making, was good politics. Calling out the moral decrepitude of unrestrained profit-seeking was a populist move. FDR’s speech paints a radical picture of the market reigned in, reset — a return to values-driven trade and world where pursuing excessive profits was amoral.

Today, politicians may lament the abstract greed of Wall Street, but precious few sustain any sort of meaningful attack — and next to none publicly criticize profit-seeking. Cursing money-making outright is out of the question. And now, it’s populist to call for slashed taxes for all, even the very rich. In his speech, Obama hardly noted the bad behavior of unscrupulous financiers — FDR gave the topic a few minutes itself. Instead, Obama paints a picture of business-as-benefactor; we just got our priorities mixed-up momentarily. The nation hit a speed bump, an unanticipated pothole on a highway that’s still well-paved.

Contrasting both speeches, while an interesting exercise, is hardly conclusive of anything. But it does seem to reveal a major evolution in the political attitude towards business in general. Over the course of 75 years, appeasing “business” has, essentially, become paramount — at least to the presidential speechwriter.

Image: Switzerland Dach

About Brian Merchant

Brian Merchant is a founding editor of the Utopianist.. When he's not helming the Utopianist, he is TreeHugger's politics writer, contributes the Getting Samy Out of Burma column to GOOD.is, and freelances for the likes of Salon and Paste. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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