September 7, 2012 · 4 Comments
By Marie Burns:
David Brooks offers a good example in his New York Times column today on how not to analyze a political speech.
First, a speech isn’t good or bad because the hearer is predisposed to disagree with its content. Brooks disliked President Obama’s speech accepting the Democratic party’s nomination because the President failed to say much about “the crushing burden of debt and the unsustainability of our entitlement system.” David Brooks is a prominent Very Serious Person, and the VSP Club rules require him to regularly double down on the federal “debt crisis” and “entitlement” programs. President Obama mentioned both (though of course he never used Brooks’ word “entitlement”), but not to an extent that would satisfy a VSP: “… it’s hard to be enthusiastic about President Obama truly championing initiatives that get no more than a sentence or a clause.”
Second, a speech isn’t good or bad because it doesn’t evoke happy times of yore. Brooks looks back fondly on “the days more than four years ago, when [Obama] spoke at a Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa, or on the night he won the caucuses of that state. There was his romantic vision, the possibility of transformational change.” Never mind that reality – coming largely in the form of a GOP conspiracy against the President – has intervened.
Third, a speech isn’t necessarily good or bad because it doesn’t contain “big policy ideas…, big proposals, big as health care was four years ago.” There may be times when “big policy ideas” are counterproductive. But I agree with Brooks to this extent: the country could use some big policy ideas about now. I was initially surprised that President Obama had decided to play it safe and stay small-bore. “School uniforms” might have worked well for President Bill Clinton at a time when the economy appeared to be doing well, but when much is wrong, much is expected. (Sorry, Jesus.) But just as school uniforms were Clinton’s nod to reality, so Obama’s goal of 100,000 new math and science teachers (over the next ten years) are a reflection of today’s reality: polls show that if the election were held today, Republicans would likely gain seats in both the House and the Senate. President Obama’s power in his next term may reside largely at the tip of his veto pen. Any “big policy ideas” that don’t involve tax cuts for the rich and cuts in the social safety net are not going to happen.
According to Brooks, President Obama isn’t the only Democrat who can’t come up with any big policy ideas. Brooks writes, “I asked [Democratic] governors, mayors and legislators to name a significant law that they’d like to see President Obama pass in a second term. Not one could.” Yeah, and Brooks ran a sub-three marathon. No governors could think of immigration reform (which, by the way, would be a tremendous economic stimulus program, while costing very little. Imagine millions of undocumented workers coming out of the shadows of their off-the-books menial jobs, their rented quarters and their stymied educations to put their full potential to work). No mayors could think of massive infrastructure projects that would bring jobs to their cities and literally pave the way for new businesses. No legislators could think of a tough cap-and-trade law that would reduce air pollution and make the big polluters pay. And no politician could think of campaign finance reform, which would make possible these and hundreds of other worthy pieces of legislation. Unless Brooks was talking to empty chairs or cardboard cutouts, his claim is simply not credible.
Brooks complains that the worst part of the President’s speech was that it “was dominated by unexplained goals.” Brooks names a few “worthy goals” which Obama mentioned: deficit reduction (surprise!) and increased exports. But Brooks misses the biggest goal Obama described in his speech. Brooks is not alone here; all the other pundits I read this morning missed it, too. This does not surprise me, because Obama’s goal is an ironic one. In a campaign and a convention which claims to be devoted to looking “Forward!” President Obama made clear that his central goal is to reclaim a nation of an earlier time: “Ours is a fight to restore the values that built the largest middle class and the strongest economy the world has ever known; the values my grandfather defended as a soldier in Patton’s Army; the values that drove my grandmother to work on a bomber assembly line while he was gone.”
Nice rose-colored glasses there, Mr. President. That nation in which his “grandparents were given the chance to go to college, buy their first home, and fulfill the basic bargain at the heart of America’s story” was a decidedly flawed one. These grandparents were white, and Obama has acknowledged elsewhere that his grandmother – who was often the family’s principal breadwinner – bumped her head up against a low glass ceiling at the bank where she worked. This may have been a nation that “triumphed over fascism and depression; a nation where the most innovative businesses turned out the world’s best products,” as Obama says, but it was not, as he claims, one in which “everyone shared in the pride and success.” Women didn’t share, racial minorities – especially African-Americans – didn’t share, non-Christians didn’t share. A minority of Americans enjoyed full civil liberties and voting rights – and some, of course, were “more equal” than others. There was no Medicare, no Medicaid. Social Security and unemployment benefits were limited to certain occupations; women usually benefited only through their husbands or children, and the programs contained built-in racial discrimination.
So what President Obama really proposed were “perfected values”: a social contract that recognizes the American worker as a highly-prized actor in the economic system, but a contract that no longer sees the worker only as a white man or even a man. What was unique about the 20th-century social contract was that government and even business interests agreed that for capitalism to work, a significant percentage of American workers had to prosper, too. Call it the Model “A” theory. Henry Ford built cars that his workers – and their friends – could afford. Heck, Mitt Romney’s father built cars that his workers could afford, too. President Obama alluded to this principle in his speech: “We believe that when a CEO pays his autoworkers enough to buy the cars that they build, the whole company does better.”
That historic social compact disintegrated in the 1980s. Ronald Reagan and financiers like Mitt Romney who profited from Reagan’s laissez-faire policies changed not just the values that defined the social compact but also the mathematical balance it had imposed. Wealth inequality has risen ever since. This growing wealth inequality was the “basic bargain slipping away” that Obama says drove him to run for president. Brooks himself acknowledges “increasing social equity” is one of the “big things” the next president must do. There is nothing, even on Obama’s extensive wish list, that remotely suggests he aims to do more than give a teeny nudge in the right direction. He has presented himself in this convention speech as the little Dutch boy, his finger in the dike, fending off the ravages of a flood of Republican destruction. Obama likes to cite Martin Luther King (and Theodore Parker before him) who said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” With a notable exception – the remarkable success of the gay rights movement – and isolated advances for women and racial minorities, the arc of this nation has bent toward injustice since Americans have allowed arch-conservatives to become a force of government. In his speech last night, President Obama effectively conceded the point.
The speech, contra Brooks, was not one entirely lacking in hope. The last third of the President’s speech – the most effective part – was an exhortation to Americans to do their parts – to become citizens again who
… accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations.” accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations…. As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. So you see, the election four years ago wasn’t about me. It was about you. My fellow citizens – you were the change.
This was a colloquial riff on John F. Kennedy’s “And so, my fellows Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.” Even Brooks found this rhetoric appealing – perhaps because it tweaked his nostalgia bone, whether he realizes it or not. Brooks wrote, “I liked the emphasis he put not on himself but on the word ‘you’ – the idea that change comes organically from the bottom up…. I liked the sense of citizenship that pervaded his address, the sense of mutual obligation.”
The message of shared responsibilities wants repeating. We are in the mess we’re in because we have not been good citizens. We have been bad stewards of our fragile democracy. While Obama has not lived up to our expectations, we have not lived up to his, either. We have allowed politicians to exploit our prejudices, our fears and our greedy hearts. We have made careless, foolish choices in selecting our representatives. A serious people would not have a Congress of representatives who include Michele Bachmann, Louis Gohmert, Rand Paul and Jim Inhoff. That cohort is one of the best reasons to vote for President Obama. Despite his failings, Obama’s policies – however marginally – support programs that will indeed make us better, more informed voters, and therefore better citizens. The President made the case in his speech:
If you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference, then other voices will fill the void: lobbyists and special interests; the people with the $10 million checks who are trying to buy this election and those who are making it harder for you to vote; Washington politicians who want to decide who you can marry, or control health care choices that women should make for themselves. Only you can make sure that doesn’t happen. Only you have the power to move us forward.
There is a darker way to look at Obama’s speech, and the action – and inaction – behind his words. Alan Minsky, writing for TruthDig, puts it like this:
America has truly become – or maybe it always has been and remains – an an oligarchy, papered over with a thin veneer of democracy. Someone in Obama’s position could only ever be there because he has figured out how to present himself as an attractive leader to the people who really rule this country or he’s been hand selected by a subset of the elite as the perfect frontman. In this regard, there’s an uncanny continuity from Reagan through Obama.
There is every reason to agree with Minsky, to be nearly certain we’ve been snookered by a line of talented con men. But there is no reason, ever, to give up that last sliver of hope that some day, one of these people we collectively place in the Oval Office will live up to our expectations. Barack Obama is not that guy. Whether or not he believes in the angel of his better nature, he has one. His opponent and the other leaders of the Republican party do not.
David Brooks writes that he “was looking to see if [Obama] was capable of a new burst of change.” Obama gave the answer in his convention speech, and that answer was “no.” And why should Obama comply? Both Brooks and Minsky want some kind of sea change. But they certainly don’t want the same change. Any change that might appeal to David Brooks would be one that would further shred whatever remains of that gossamer tissue of democracy. So we may sniffle in that tissue, but still we dance with the one that brung us and thank the (reconstructed) god of the Democratic platform that Obama steps on our toes with less force and frequency than the guy who is tapping his shoulder. And yes, Obama is leading in his own awkward way, and we are dancing backwards in high heels.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com