One Small Response to President Obama’s Speech

Obama, Lincoln and Changing the American Paradigm


Some are referring to President Obama’s second inaugural address as his most progressive yet. Perhaps. It would be nice to see President Obama take a more progressive stand in his second term—preferably a more steady, less compromising stand than his first.

Indeed, he hit on the standard progressive fair: economic justice, equality, peace through diplomacy, environmental sustainability. You know, all the stuff that makes conservatives seethe and will almost certainly become the grist of right wing accusations of socialist intrigue.

MSNBC’s Chris Mathews referred to Obama’s speech as Lincolnesque. Certainly this was intentional. Obama’s line, “Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together,” is clearly an invocation of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address in which he said, “…fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue…until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword…so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'” President Lincoln may well have co-written Obama’s speech.

This should not surprise us. President Obama has a similar challenge as Lincoln. President Obama, like Lincoln, is presiding over a noticeably divided nation. Not divided in the context of the Civil War, though it could be argued that our current political discourse shares a polarization not unlike that of the 1850’s. Regardless, our political divisions have been especially vehement of late. We are entering a transition in which the paradigms shaped by conservative think tanks, fostering the Reagan mythos, have clearly failed and are being challenged. The last four years is testament to the fact that the defunct neo-conservatism of the last thirty years will not go quietly into that good night.

E. J. Dionne, in his great book Our Divided Political Heart, describes the unfortunate contest between America’s mutual traditions of individualism and communitarianism. Our history is replete with examples of rugged individualism, but incomplete without recognizing that a successful America is the fruit of communities coming together to make a better future. Traditional liberalism and conservatism embrace both principles. If anything, individualism is a brainchild of classical liberalism, as is free market capitalism.

The last thirty years, however, has seen a conservative version of Randian individualism to the exclusion of any communitarian principles of mutuality and shared responsibility. Ronald Reagan built his political career on the concept that government was not the solution, but rather the problem. This was an easy sell in the era of Watergate, Vietnam, stagflation and impotence in the face of oil embargoes and a hostage crisis. Reagan offered us morning in America and the vision of a shining city on a hill. The only thing holding us back was the government sponsored welfare queen. John Galt became the ideal of the age, and Gordon Gekko the ironic anti-hero.

Economic success became the indication of self-worth, consumerism one’s badge of honor. There were no problems that did not have a market based solution. Those who could not prosper had only their own sloth or stupidity to blame. For thirty years American policy and culture was guided by a nihilistic paradigm of free market capitalism meets Spencerian evolution. Valuable protections were weakened, necessary regulations were rolled back. We became a nation that consumes rather than one that produces. This consumption was fed by debt at the public and private level.

In 2008, this system collapsed. And the safety net was tattered.

President Obama entered the scene during this time of crisis. The last four years was characterized by the struggle of a defunct philosophy against the necessary politics requisite to solving this crisis. Thirty years of individualism was not to be underestimated, and its proponents, facing political irrelevance, could do nothing but obstruct, nothing but ensure failure. The policy fights were a brutal battlefield, a baptism of fire for a new and relatively inexperienced president.

In the next four years President Obama is in a position in which he must do more than work toward policy, more than staunch an economic hemorrhage or end two seemingly endless wars, or even putting people back to work. As Lincoln’s second term challenge was to change the dominant paradigms of his time from one of war and conflict to one of “binding the nation’s wounds…with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right,” so President Obama’s is to change the dominant political paradigm of today from one of ingrained free market individualism to one of mutually responsible community and democratically responsive government.

In 1865, President Lincoln took the podium during his inaugural. Below him, the Mall was a muddy sludge after many consecutive days of rain. Above him was the newly completed Capital Dome. Here he presented his hopes for healing a nation. Almost a hundred and fifty years later, another president placed his right hand on Lincoln’s Bible to take the oath of office, then invoked Lincoln’s legacy in offering his own vision.

Obama’s speech was not just homage to Abraham Lincoln, but was a creed of communitarianism, of working together to make America stronger. Government was not the problem, nor the solution, but rather a partner in satisfying the goals of “We the People.” President Obama reminded us time and again that it is always “We the People,” and government is supposed to be our instrument for justice and prosperity.

So perhaps this is Obama’s most progressive speech. Communitarianism is a centerpiece of progressive liberalism. During the 2012 campaign the brilliant Elizabeth Warren did more to bring this ideal to life than anyone in my lifetime.

There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there – good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory… Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea – God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

President Obama adopted her meme, not always to the greatest effect (“you didn’t build that”), to win a decisive victory against a paragon of the free market. It is now in Obama’s hands to build on that paradigm, as did President Reagan, and change the nature of our cultural conversation back to one of, yes, individual initiative and hard work, but also one of mutual responsibility and common interest.

Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce, schools and colleges to train our workers. Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play. Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.

However, don’t expect a radical departure from the status quo. As progressivism was always a mitigation between capitalism and radical demands for a truly just and sustainable economy, so President Obama is only willing to offer so much.

We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.

No she’s not. The little girl born in the bleakest poverty is always at a disadvantage. She may be free in our eyes or in the eyes of God, but she is not free in any other meaningful way. Bleakest poverty means she will be subject to variables that can only diminish her freedom and opportunity. Pollutants will weaken her body and mind; lack of health care will subject her to illness and disease; inadequate housing; economic desperation; few educational opportunities; crime; family instability; all of the factors endemic to bleakest poverty are heavy chains that bind her, and no amount of lofty rhetoric will change that fact.

It’s a shame that President Obama offers nothing more than freedom in our eyes for this little girl when he should have challenged the very existence of “bleakest poverty” in this, the wealthiest nation in the history of the world.

Perhaps this real paradigm shift awaits a future president.


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