The State of the Union’s Quiet Radicalism
Michael Tomasky of The Daily Beast’s response to the president’s fifth State of the Union address sounds much like my own. It was Obama’s second liberal stemwinder in a row; and if nothing else, the speech was a testament to the sincerity of the president’s oft-stated focus on the “long game” of politics:
What is not a waste of time…is using your pulpit as president of the United States to lay out a vision for the sort of society you would like to see America become. Barack Obama is going to retire in January 2017, but history isn’t likely to end then. Obama knows that fighting climate change and getting universal pre-school and doing something to help the working poor are big jobs, long jobs. They’re certainly not going to happen under the current legislative configuration, and they’re probably not going to happen while he’s in office.
But they are going to happen…[Obama’s] play is to inch us toward those goals however he can.
I’m not sure Gude would actually disagree with me on this, but I’d emphasize that Obama-style “piecemeal reform,” while not enough to create the kind of change that’d leave an activist satisfied, can be valuable, and even transformational, if it’s tied to an ambitious rhetorical framework. As cognitive scientist, linguist, Democratic advisor, and author George Lakoff (h/t Michele) detailed in a post-SOTU Huffpo piece, the president’s rhetoric as of late shows all indications of being consciously designed to not only normalize progressivism but to integrate it into a new vision of Americanism.
Above all else, what separates Obama’s America from Romney’s or Bush’s or Reagan’s or, to a lesser degree, even Clinton’s is an elegant rejection of the traditional view of government and civil society as inherently distinct, separated by a vague but impenetrable wall. Republicans have cast this artificial divide as a bulwark of freedom, while Democrats have tended to ignore it or to cite it in celebration in order to assure they’re innocent of any deviating thoughtcrime. Lakoff thinks Obama’s looking to shed all that disingenuous baggage:
“Our unfinished task” refers to citizens — us — as ruling the government, not the reverse. “We” are making the government do what is right. To work “on behalf of the many, and not just the few.” And he takes from the progressive vision the heart of the conservative message. “We” require the government to encourage free enterprise, reward individual initiative, and provide opportunity for all. It is the reverse of the conservative view of the government ruling us. In a progressive democracy, the government is the instrument of the people, not the reverse.
For most leftists, this is understandably going to sound like faint praise. And I want to underline that my defense of Obama is not a roundabout way of urging activists and radicals to stop complaining, stop agitating, stop demanding more. Obama’s only been able to tweak the mainstream of American political rhetoric because of the ways that activists and the like have spent decades pushing for far more than his State of the Union ever dared. I’m not here to pick a side, in short.
But I do think there is truth to the idea that along with a “long game,” there is an “inside game” and an “outside game” to politics as well. And while passage of Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and the president’s appointments to the Supreme Court will stand as more consequential examples of the inside game’s value, having a popular president who gives a speech celebrating a politics of community, founded on belief in the transformative power of empathy, deserves more than a hand-wave or nitpick in response.