Left Unsaid: Why Barack Obama’s Convention Speech Was Far More Ambitious Than You Think
[This was] one of the most progressive speeches I’ve heard him give.…
He made it clear that the American people (and, I would argue, the citizens of the world) are in a project together, and that we can only succeed in that project if we have faith in it and in one another, without “othering” groups or allowing selfish cynicism to take hold. That’s a daring message for a U.S. president.
One of the weirdest things about this year’s Obama campaign is that despite liberals and the left-of-center in general being less “fired up” than they were in ’08, the President’s currently running a much more explicitly leftwing operation. I acknowledge that he’s not talking about punitive wealth redistribution or the achievability of a worker’s paradise, but as Jacobin‘s Bhaskar Sunkara said recently, it’s important that we’re realistic about what can be done in the here-and-now to help the American Left succeed in the near and distant future. We’re grading on a curve.
Yet even by these limited standards, there were moments in Obama’s address that indicated to me a willingness on his part to own American liberalism (albeit in his own image) more than any Democratic presidential nominee has in a generation. Somewhat obscured by the lengthy passages of reheated Clintonism, Obama subtly attempted to frame his reelection in two ways: As a vindication of American liberalism on the one hand, and a breaking with Reaganism on the other.
Concerning liberalism’s vindication, he trod lightly. He did not deliver a leftist version of “A Time for Choosing.” But he did consciously align himself with FDR, a move that while not quite bold is nevertheless a clear step away from the previous Democratic president’s assertion that the “era of big government is over.” Notice that Obama isn’t simply mentioning FDR in the same way the Republican Party (very rarely) mentions Abraham Lincoln, as a kind of superfluous bit of chest-thumping without clear relation to the issues of the day. On the contrary, Obama is specifically citing FDR’s leadership model as one he’ll look to in a second term:
I won’t pretend the path I’m offering is quick or easy. I never have. You didn’t elect me to tell you what you wanted to hear. You elected me to tell you the truth. And the truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades. It will require common effort, shared responsibility, and the kind of bold, persistent experimentation that Franklin Roosevelt pursued during the only crisis worse than this one. And by the way – those of us who carry on his party’s legacy should remember that not every problem can be remedied with another government program or dictate from Washington.
A pessimistic liberal might disagree with my point of emphasis, opting instead to note Obama’s hectoring “not every problem can be remedied with another government program.” I think that’s little more than ass-covering, the kind of performative and empty-headed centrism that appeals (I guess) to undecided voters. It’s more significant to my eyes that Obama is not only comparing himself to Roosevelt but is also endorsing Roosevelt’s greatest legacy, the belief that government can actively and effectively combat economic malaise and improve its citizens’ lives. Big government may be over, but a rose smells the same by any other name; and a government of “bold, persistent experimentation”doesn’t sound small to me.
Being called a “liberal” doesn’t have nearly the political bite it used to, but the word isn’t entirely rehabilitated yet. Moreover, Obama’s record is too spotty, the economy too weak, for him to spend vital airtime bragging about accomplishments that many voters would trade in a heartbeat for better jobs and more of them. So it’s no surprise that he spent more time talking about his opponent’s ideology than his own. (When he did talk about himself, it was often in regard to some rather prosaic goal, like lowering college costs or increasing natural gas production.) What struck me about his criticisms of Romney-Ryan, though, was that they didn’t have much to do with Romney-Ryan in the specific.
Pointedly, Obama wasn’t pushing back on a few months or years’ worth of GOP politicking; he was going after the essence of Reaganism itself. I think it’s worth noting that this section of the speech directly precedes the Roosevelt passage:
Now, our friends at the Republican convention were more than happy to talk about everything they think is wrong with America, but they didn’t have much to say about how they’d make it right. They want your vote, but they don’t want you to know their plan. And that’s because all they have to offer is the same prescription they’ve had for the last thirty years:
“Have a surplus? Try a tax cut.”
“Deficit too high? Try another.”
“Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning!”
Now, I’ve cut taxes for those who need it – middle-class families and small businesses. But I don’t believe that another round of tax breaks for millionaires will bring good jobs to our shores, or pay down our deficit. I don’t believe that firing teachers or kicking students off financial aid will grow the economy, or help us compete with the scientists and engineers coming out of China. After all that we’ve been through, I don’t believe that rolling back regulations on Wall Street will help the small businesswoman expand, or the laid-off construction worker keep his home. We’ve been there, we’ve tried that, and we’re not going back. We’re moving forward.
Forgive me for perhaps belaboring the obvious, but I think it’s really worth underlining that Obama’s timeframe here isn’t simply the eight years of George W. Bush. He points 30 years of misguided policy. I don’t think Obama considers Bill Clinton to have been just as bad for America as W (he’s no Joe Weisenthal) but I do think it’s reasonable to conclude from what he’s written that the President agrees with a popular explanation on the Left for the Clinton presidency’s failures: Bill was, in this telling, hopelessly hamstrung by Reaganism; by its electoral successes, its anti-government rhetoric, its campaigns against unions, and most of all by its tax cut-fueled debt.
Hovering in my mind throughout this analysis of Obama’s remarks is the fact that, according to multiple sources, the President is convinced a booming economic recovery is right around the corner. One of his consuming worries about this year’s election, supposedly, is that Romney will win and assume office just in time to “steal” credit for the delayed benefits of Obama’s economic policies. While I’m much less sanguine than Obama about America’s short-term turn-around potential, I’m heartened to see he understands that a good economy covers almost any incumbent president, and his party, in glory.
Way back when, back in that faraway land of the recent past, Barack Obama caused a stir when he announced his intention to be a “transformational” president on the order of Reagan. Earlier, he’d shared his belief that a great president is one who changes how Americans conceive of themselves and their country. With his speech in Charlotte, I think Obama was trying to lay down a rhetorical landmark that, in the near future, when Americans are reveling in the Obama Boom, will be seen as a historical breaking point; the moment when Americans decided to let go of the past 30 years and, as he’d put it, move forward.