When I saw the New York Times story “Calling Radicalism by Its Name”, which begins by citing a “thunderclap of a speech” given by President Obama in which he laid into the Republicans, I checked the date on the computer monitor to ensure that it was, in fact, not April 1st. I have, after all, grown incredibly sceptical of our President’s pretensions to progressivism.
And I was instantly reminded of Conservative British Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s widely ridiculed attempts to get tough with both critics of imperialism in the Middle East (Briton Glubb ‘Pasha’ had just been dismissed as commander of Jordan’s Arab Legion, and Egypt’s President Nasser had just nationalised the Suez Canal) and naysayers in his own party who though he was soft.
But I took a few minutes to read through the transcript of the speech, available from the White House, and was somewhat impressed in spite of myself.
Having had a year to size up the Republican arguments for deregulation, the slashing of social services, and the further empowerment of the wealthy, the President (as presaged in his State of the Union speech this year) is increasingly ready to respond. “This is not”, he declared to the assembled journalists whose ruminations will do much to shape the character of the campaign, “just another run-of-the-mill political debate”. The President posed what he sees as the critical question (“Can we succeed as a country where a shrinking number of people do exceedingly well, while a growing number struggle to get by?”), and argued that addressing it is “the defining issue of our time ... It’s why I ran in 2008. It’s what my presidency has been about. It’s why I’m running again”.
But the way in which the President proceeded to lay out his argument illustrated not only why many progressives remain unconvinced that the cause of equality is the principle underlying his presidency, but also why he has been so far unsuccessful in persuading most Americans that this cause is one worth fighting and sacrificing for.
The President is, like many Democrats, convinced of the inherent conservativeness of the public, and so couches his arguments in infuriatingly apologetic terms, prefacing every claim about the worth of social democracy with a statement about the inadequacy of public institutions (that is, after all, what the institutions of government are).
“Some of you know”, Obama said, “my first job in Chicago was working with a group of Catholic churches that often did more good for the people in their communities than any government program could. In those same communities I saw that no education policy, however well crafted, can take the place of a parent’s love and attention ... I know that the true engine of job creation in this country is the private sector, not Washington, which is why I’ve cut taxes for small business owners 17 times over the last three years”. He touted his cuts, some related to waste, but others to “programs that we support, but just can’t afford given our deficits and our debt”.
But it’s not an either-or, and the tyranny of deficits and debts is one that is reminiscent of the fear an earlier, more progressive President warned us against. We can choose to manage our economy so that we need not live in terror of deficits, or we can give in to the fear and allow it to manage our politics and society. We don’t have to choose between a well-funded and well-crafted education policy on the one hand and a parent’s love and attention on the other. We don’t (unless you really believe that a mandate for universal healthcare or the regulation of pollutants are forms of tyrannical oppression) have to choose between individual liberty and government regulations. You don’t (unless you’re possessed of the peculiarly rigid mind of an economic fundamentalist) have to choose between private sector job creation and investment in the public sector. These things coexist. A parent’s love and attention creates the condition for children to do well at school, and public investment in schools and healthcare create the conditions for people to work successfully in either the private or public sector.
Citing Republican contributions to our now rather threadbare welfare state, Obama declared that “these investments aren’t part of some scheme to redistribute wealth from one group to another. They are expressions of the fact that we are one nation. These investments benefit us all. They contribute to genuine, durable economic growth”. But they are—or should be—part of an effort to more closely align earnings, or at least economic security, with citizenship instead of the whims of a market which places undue emphasis on the work of certain (often unproductive in social or material terms) sectors. The welfare of the public should be more important than growth.
The President did, however, articulate his “belief that, through government, we should do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves. That belief is the reason this country has been able to build a strong military to keep us safe, and public schools to educate our children. That belief is why we’ve been able to lay down railroads and highways to facilitate travel and commerce. That belief is why we’ve been able to support the work of scientists and researchers whose discoveries have saved lives, and unleashed repeated technological revolutions, and led to countless new jobs and entire industries. That belief is also why we’ve sought to ensure that every citizen can count on some basic measure of security”.
In outlining the radicalism of the Republican programme, Obama described the impacts of proposed Republican cuts on higher education, on research in the areas of energy, medicine and technology, and on schools and in particular on early childhood education. The cuts would mean the shuttering of our national parks and the rolling back of regulation. They would mean the devolution of Medicare, which would lead to its evisceration.
It was in outlining the right-wing prescriptions for Medicare that the President most comprehensively illustrated what ‘choice’ really means for Republicans: “Instead of being enrolled in Medicare when they turn 65, seniors who retire a decade from now would get a voucher that equals the cost of the second cheapest health care plan in their area. If Medicare is more expensive than that private plan, they’ll have to pay more if they want to enrol in traditional Medicare. If health care costs rise faster than the amount of the voucher—as, by the way, they’ve been doing for decades—that’s too bad. Seniors bear the risk. If the voucher isn’t enough to buy a private plan with the specific doctors and care that you need, that’s too bad”. ‘Too bad’ is the motto of the Republican Party these days, as it enjoins the public to embrace a kind of Wild West economy, in which luck and your personal wealth play a greater role than commonsense or planning.
The Republican deficit reduction plans, Obama said, in one of his tougher moments, are “really an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country. It is thinly veiled social Darwinism”. Calling Republicans Darwinists is certainly waving the red flag!* He critiqued, as I’ve been waiting for him to do for years now, the “impulse to suggest that if the two parties are disagreeing, then they’re equally at fault and the truth lies somewhere in the middle”. But his embrace of Bill Clinton’s unholy strategy of triangulation makes his critique hard to take seriously.
So the newspapers and tv networks will be pleased. The President has given them red meat, and they can breathlessly declare that we now know Obama’s strategy: to run against Republican radicalism. Now that’s fine. He can and should run against radicalism, but it would help him to have an affirmative programme as well—one that he’s not constantly apologising for.
Because let’s face it: he can’t criticise a Medicare voucher and simultaneously endorse steps that might lead to the equivalent where our public schools are concerned. He can’t talk convincingly about the public good if you then try to out-austerity Simpson-Bowles and defend levels of military spending which are not only fiscally unconscionable, but which tend to have ruinous consequences for our nation. He can’t cite the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency as a social good if he accompanies that citation with a loosening of regulation and can’t also articulate why environmental protection is important. He can’t emphasise the importance between closing the gap between those at the top and the bottom when he sits quietly on his hands while workers defend themselves from assaults on their right to organise (it’s perhaps no coincidence that we’ve seen spiralling inequality alongside the dramatic reduction of unionisation in the private sector).
The President has a long way to go before he’ll get my vote. I’d more or less resigned myself to voting for the Green Party, and am perfectly prepared to go through with what some family members are convinced is akin to hara-kiri. But I’m willing to be persuaded. And if the President can match his actions to his words (this is where the real deficit, as far as I’m concerned, has been these last three and a half years), and give heart to the cause of progressivism and social democracy, he’ll have made a start. But so long as he embraces an amoral, ‘realist’ foreign policy that looks a lot like the neo-conservatism Americans repudiated in 2006 and again in 2008, he’s fighting an uphill battle. But I hope we see more of the ‘tough’ Obama in the coming months.
* I’ve heard that Newt Gingrich is a Dinosaur fan. Just another case of narcissism on the part of the former Speaker. Although he’d better not let this fact get out, as I know more than a few in his party believe the dinosaurs never existed!