Left Unsaid: Why Barack Obama’s Convention Speech Was Far More Ambitious Than You Think

Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a freelance journalist and blogger. He considers Bob Dylan and Walter Sobchak to be the two great Jewish thinkers of our time; he thinks Kafka was half-right when he said there was hope, "but not for us"; and he can be reached through the twitter via @eliasisquith or via email. The opinions he expresses on the blog and throughout the interwebs are exclusively his own.

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43 Responses

  1. DensityDuck says:

    The hopeful interpretation of the leftward skew is that President Obama tried being a moderate centrist and everything still went to hell, so he figures that he might as well go with what he knows has worked for him in the past.

    The cynical interpretation is that he knows he won’t have Anyone But Bush and First Black President this time around, so he needs to make it a Secular Holy Crusade to get every hand inclined to pull the “D” lever into a voting booth this November. And you aren’t going to do that with moderate centrist talk.Report

    • True, DD–ABB and FBP were damn strong credentials, but that’s so 2008. Technically, the SHC is at odds with the AME and the SCLC, but I don’t foresee that amounting to much.

      This time around, anyway…


    • balthan in reply to DensityDuck says:

      A Secular Holy Crusade kicked off by hastily inserting “God-given” into the platform?Report

      • Tom Van Dyke in reply to balthan says:

        You’re fronting, right? Restoring “God-given” to the platform. Hey, it’s your party, and they ruined your convention with this, accidentally revealing the antipathy of what sounded like over half of the delegates toward our Founding ideals.

        Or Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Regardless, the Dem convention screwed the pooch with this, brother, and bigtime. I don’t even think the “God” thing actually lost votes—that the Democratic party has become the home of the anti-religious is an ill-kept secret.

        But don’t think American Jews didn’t the open hostility toward “G-d” or Israel, one or the other.Report

        • balthan in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

          The 2012 platform isn’t just the 2008 platform with a few tweaks. It’s a new document. How do you “restore” a word to a document, if it was never there to begin with?

          And both parties are so steadfast in their support of Jerusalem as the capital that the American Embassy remains in Tel Aviv.

          Both issues are window dressing. They’re the flag lapel pin and saying “God bless America” to conclude a speech. They’re only notable when they’re not there, so someone can feign outrage.

          (And, for the record, not my party.)Report

        • Michelle in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

          Wow, Tom, you’re going to ride this hobby horse til it dies, aren’t you? Especially since the phrase they restored was “G-d-given talents” not “G-d-given rights,” which seems to belie your theory that they were referring to the language of the Declaration of Independence and it’s underlying theory of rights.

          As for the Jerusalem thing, it’s not going to cost Obama any Jewish votes that weren’t already in the bag for Romney. There are lots of reasons that Jews remain one of the most consistent blocs of Democratic voters, and the omission and return of language about Jerusalem in a party platform six people read isn’t one of them.Report

          • Kazzy in reply to Michelle says:

            Heard someone (not sure who) on the radio make a great point that the Jerusalem thing is a lot more complicated than it appears on its surface. If you read it verbatim and infer no meaning beyond the words, than “recognizing” Jerusalem as the capital is fairly innocuous. But if you read more into it, as most people seem to given the strength of conviction on both sides of the argument, than it seems to be indicating that America has a role in determining the capitals of sovereign nations. Thinking of it in this way, I’d object to that language in the platform. Strongly.Report

        • Cermet in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

          You are incorrect TVD – to claim that democrats are anti-religion is utterly false. Fact – the greatest danger to religion is forcing people to follow your specific religious views; that is why separation of church and State is so critically important for the health of religions. This is exactly what democrats do and they are far better defenders of religion than republicans. AS in being far more pro-life than republicans, democrats strive to reduce abortions and protect woman’s lives while republicans have no issue with increasing abortions, and allowing woman to die by outlawing legal, safe abortions (and many refuse to allow for health complications due to a pregnancy!) as long as they can irrationally claim to be anti-abortion. AS the Bible is clear on, life starts after the first trimester of the pregnancy (see old testament and is the only real statements in the Bible.) Further, besides the writers of the Bible fully aware of this topic, even Christ too was aware that first trimester abortions were common in his day and had been practiced for many hundred of years; yet never did Christ say a word about it. So what makes so many people claim that life starts at conception? The Bible most certainly does not say this or even imply it.Report

  2. Kolohe says:

    Um, didn’t FDR, even with favorable economic trends and ballot box vindication, wind up stalling and somewhat retreating in his second term?Report

    • CK MacLeod in reply to Kolohe says:

      That’s one way of looking at it, but he wasn’t, of course, “stalling and somewhat retreating” on a whim. There were other people involved. The struggle over interpreting FDR will mirror the struggle over understanding and interpreting contemporary politics.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to CK MacLeod says:

        The point is if FDR with a mostly compliant congress and an eventual acquience supreme court and a huge popular mandate and very obvious improved economic circumstances did what he did, what hope does Obama’s ‘ambition’ have? Does he need to start (yet another) war?Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Kolohe says:

          Operation Iranian Liberation.Report

        • Elias Isquith in reply to Kolohe says:

          This is kind of ahistorical. The circumstances of his presidency were rather fluid; ’32 he had a big win but not a mandate, since he barely said anything while campaigning (often said the opposite of what he’d do). ’36 is his high-water mark — and the Court is most certainly not compliant at that point. The Court packing debacle badly damaged him, especially with Southern Democrats, and part of what he had to do as a response was bring in austerity, too soon as it turned out.Report

          • James Hanley in reply to Elias Isquith says:

            part of what he had to do as a response was bring in austerity, too soon as it turned out.

            I’ll dispute that. The economy began reviving after the Court struck down the New Deal. After the switch in time in which it began upholding New Deal legislation, the economy tanked again as investors got spooked. To blame the “Depression within the Depression” on austerity measures isn’t, I don’t believe, a really supportable proposition.

            I’m always intrigued at the assumption that the Great Depression was so bad that it took all of Roosevelt’s efforts, and even that was hardly enough to fix things. But financial panics were not unknown, and the real key variable in the Great Depression was precisely the degree of government intervention. It’s not crazy to suspect that the most notable variable just might have had something to do with the different outcome (a much longer than ever before economic malaise).Report

            • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:

              I heard John Taylor on On Point making the same POE-based argument about “policy” as the culprit for economic performance in this decade (particular aspects of policy in his mind, of course), and I think it’s just as weak there as it is here. Correctly, then, you put the argument in the weakest possible terms: “it’s not crazy to suspect….” I have no idea how strong the case for austerity as the cause of the second ’30s dip is or isn’t, either – it seems to me that the better thing to say is that it’s not been settled what caused that dip (though I think the (re-)interpretation you give has unsettled what had been a somewhat settled question – legitimately, I think), nor what is causing this stagnation.


              • James H. in reply to Michael Drew says:

                Part of the problem in the analysis is that multiple things happened at the same time that provide plausible explanations. The may not necessarily be logically exclusive of each other, but they generally attach to different theories.

                But I would say its inaccurate to treat any one approach as “settled.”. It’s been a long time since Friedman proposed his monetary theory of the Depression. The general public tends to think it’s a settled question, but with at least three competing theories floating around the discipline, I don’t think we can really say that it is.Report

              • Michael Drew in reply to James H. says:

                Agreed. I was saying that the new theories have legitimately restored the question to open debate status, which in turn doesn’t mean it wasn’t also legitimately settled for a while. That’s just how academic/intellectual questions evolve over time, as you know.

                I would say that Taylor is way out ahead of that kind of academic caution in the linked interview, whatever his considerable stature in the discipline. He didn’t mind just saying it’s gotta be “the policy” not eighty years ago but here today, because, you know, it’s just a rule that American recessions come back with a strength negatively proportional to the depth of the downturn – with the only available explanation for a difference this time being “the policy” (evidence from other countries being irrelevant because it’s… from other countries). But then he is one of Romney’s chief economic advisors, so what should we expect.

                (I should say that Robert Reich’s part in the discussion was just pathetic, as have been the contributions of even closer Obama Admin economic advisors and staff that I have heard discussing – or not discussing as the case may be – this question in other venues where it’s been the topic. A few liberal economists have been consistently willing to address this topic, but the closer to the administration they’ve been, it seems, the more reflexive is their desire to change the subject – if only slightly but still just enough -when it’s raised.)Report

        • CK MacLeod in reply to Kolohe says:

          FDR, his advisers, his allies, and his opponents did not have the benefit of hindsight either. He began his administration with a much different set of economic theories than he eventually arrived at, which are different again from what economists today both agree and disagree about.

          Elias doesn’t use the word “ambition.” The transformational idea or turning point might have to be something rather different from another New Deal or Great Society, just as the 2010s are different from the 1960s or the 1930s.Report

          • Kolohe in reply to CK MacLeod says:

            He used the word ambitious. Which is not the same word as ambition, but really?

            Ok take FDR historical record out of it. Most (All?) 2nd term presidents get less done than in their first term.

            Take all history before 2009 out of it. How does the person that promised, for instance, to close Gitmo in his first year and didn’t – when he had more favorable balance of political forces than now (or next year) – be able to accomplish evn more in his next term?Report

            • CK MacLeod in reply to Kolohe says:

              You’re right, I double-checked searching for “ambition,” and forgot his headline. The point that holds is that identification of “ambition” with an alphabet soup of programs and interventions may not be right, regardless of EI means.

              I’m not going to attempt to re-litigate Gitmo. I wouldn’t expect O to “accomplish even more” in his 2nd term, though much will depend on what events throw at him. For all I know, we’re on the verge of a neo-progressive social-political singularity that suddenly renders our near-completely dysfunctional government functional – but am not betting on it. Maybe we need or would greatly benefit from a generational process of re-definition or transformation of the American Idea, rather than the catastrophic over-identification with obsolete expressions of it that are so dear to the hearts of reactionary conservatives and leftwing nostalgics.Report

  3. b-psycho says:

    For a claim of vindication of liberalism, there sure hasn’t been much claim to liberalism itself. Particularly the individual liberty part. Without that, what you have is really just communitarianism.Report

    • b-psycho in reply to b-psycho says:

      Would edit if I could: not saying that what passes for mass modern “liberalism” in the US holds firm claim to individual liberty, more a reminder that that was once the reference made when invoking liberalism. These days we say “liberal” and basically mean “person who votes for democrats” for some reason.

      Obviously they’re not going to be go classical, and I don’t expect them to. But…remember back when “card carrying ACLU liberal” was a thing? Whatever happened to those?Report

    • CK MacLeod in reply to b-psycho says:

      Why is communitarianism a lesser thing than “liberalism”? Our terminology is confused and contestable, of course, but it could well be that the central conflict of the moment is communitarianism versus individualist politics: The “in this together” party vs. the “everyone for self” party. At the moment, American-liberalism tends to mean social welfare or statist liberalism, at the approximate left of the spectrum of liberalisms. On the great Venn diagram, it would be where communitarian perspectives overlap liberal ones, but “communitarian” is not a very widely used and understood word, and sounds a little too much like “communist,” even though faith-based perspectives, for example, also fit well within it…Report

      • Jaybird in reply to CK MacLeod says:

        I didn’t buy the argument when it opposed gay marriage, I don’t see any reason to embrace it now.Report

        • CK MacLeod in reply to Jaybird says:

          The articulation of “communitarian” represented by today’s Obamian Democratic Party has gone pretty much all in for gay marriage, so I’m not sure what the problem is. Other communitarianisms may have their problems, but the same is true for liberalism.Report

      • b-psycho in reply to CK MacLeod says:

        My understanding has been that philosophical modern liberalism basically drops classical economics and keeps much of the cultural aspect (though channeled in a different way). Hence my mention of the near extinct ACLU-card-carrying capital L Liberal: A degree of intervention in the economy but as little as possible otherwise, still skeptical of government power at least when it doesn’t involve economics.

        What I mean by communitarianism when I refer to the mainstream “left” is the “we’re in this together” view taken to the point where most difference is dismissed as petty distraction from the Greater Good — much like how the religious Right sees it, though they find cultural difference a poison (with the antidote being the majority faith taken as law to whatever extent possible) rather than merely irrelevant. The “left” side of communitarianism is what you get when you take liberalism and remove what’s left that makes it liberal. If things like locking up or drone striking citizens without trial, caging whistleblowers, and passing legislation making protesting anywhere near the object of the protests illegal are acceptable, all that’s left is management, waving the flag and sneering at troublemakers. At that point, them and the Republicans join hands.

        “Shut up and keep marching” is a sentiment that should be anathema to a liberal. Yet Dems are all too eager to enjoy their turn wielding it.Report

    • Robert Greer in reply to b-psycho says:

      Yeah, if the speech was a vindication of liberalism, then there was a missing element: Obama could have done a much better job of distinguishing his policies as uniquely communitarian. I agree with Elias that the paeans to conservative critiques of government interference were superficial — there could have been so much more explanation of exactly HOW Romney’s plan was deficient in this regard. I think it should be about unanimous that Clinton’s speech did a much better job of this.Report

  4. James Hanley says:

    Roosevelt’s greatest legacy, the belief that government can actively and effectively combat economic malaise

    Well said, albeit inadvertently, I suspect. Roosevelt’s greatest legacy is indeed only that belief, rather than any actual evidence that government can actually do so.Report

    • Dan Miller in reply to James Hanley says:

      Come on, can anyone really doubt it? Even if we grant you that the New Deal didn’t end the Depression, WWII (i.e. an extremely large government spending program) did.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Dan Miller says:

        Pointing out how much it helped the glaziers almost makes you not notice how it only helped the glaziers.Report

      • James H. in reply to Dan Miller says:


        No, it didn’t. Unemployment went down, but not as a consequence of a real rebound in the job market. We hired men to be soldiers, and women to work in war production. Production went up, but not for anything consumers wanted, just for munitions. This all resulted in an increase in GDP, but that’s only a rough measure of the economy, measuring total output, but not what type of output. If the government had put all that money and manpower into building massive statues of FDR everywhere, you could have gotten the same employment, production, and GDP numbers, but would anyone call that an economic recovery?

        Everyone expected a return to Depression after the war. War production ended and soldiers were being thrown out of work. Why it didn’t is debated, but for my money it was a combination of pent-up demand, sheer optimism as a consequence of the victory, and demand from Europe as we rebuilt it. But to say simply that war spending created a recovery is indeed doubtable.

        As to the Depresion era proper, Friedman argues that ongoing bad monetary policy prevented recovery. Others argue that FDR’s policies actively deterred investment, preventing recovery. Those views are disputed by Keynesians, of course, and I grant they could be wrong. But we can’t seriously say that just because FDR was taking actions that the actions were necessarily helpful or at least benign–clearly it is possible for a president to pursue active policies that hinder recovery rather than help it, so given that the Depression was unique both in its length and it’s degree of government intervention, I think an honest mind has to entertain the possibility that the intervention may have been cause to the length.

        production went up, but not for jobs that produced things that were in demand in the market.Report

        • Dan Miller in reply to James H. says:

          James, any view that says that munitions don’t count as useful production that peoplewanted–in 1943–seems to have some pretty fundamental problems. You can’t simply exclude government spending from GDP, especially during a massive war effort. Granting that the economy was producing less butter and more guns, that doesn’t prove the continuation of the Depression. By definition, a depressed economy is not producing as much as it could be; that was true in 1939, and definitively untrue in 1943-4. The Depression was ended by 1943, and it was caused by massive government spending. This is different from saying that all our economic problems were over, or that civilian living standards were now higher than they had been. Maybe they weren’t–but that probably has something to do with the fact that the US necessarily had to divert a large chunk of its production to avoid losing to the Axis.Report

  5. MFarmer says:

    ” Even if we grant you that the New Deal didn’t end the Depression, WWII (i.e. an extremely large government spending program) did.”

    No it didn’t — http://www.tomwoods.com/blog/one-of-the-great-fallacies-smashed/Report

  6. scott apidistra says:

    I hope you’re right. But this is the same guy that created Simpson-Bowles and has spoken favorably about it, initiated the turn to austerity in January 2010 before the GOP took the House, and hungered and thirsted for a Grand Bargain in August 2011 where he offered up cuts to Medicare and Social Security. I agree that the rhetoric is helpful, but Obama is often good on what he says and then less good on what he does, worryingly tied to the deficit fetishism of the “centrist” class and to the still-dominant Rubinite finance wing of the party. Let’s circle back to this post after the election (if he wins) and weigh the new rhetoric against the new actions, when I’ll be perfectly (and happily) willing to concede that you’re right and I’m wrong.Report