It’s not easy to come up with instant analysis of a political speech. But, even if we grade them on a curve, it seems to me that the pundits have utterly missed the point of the President’s speech last night. Most of them seem to have found it uninspiring. Yet there is no question that the audience in Charlotte was moved by the speech. Hell, I was moved by the speech and, frankly, I tend to hold events like this at an analytical distance which makes it hard for me to get caught up in them.
The pundits were right to say the speech was about the future not the past and that it proposed a continuation of Obama’s basic approach to governing. And they were right to say that there were no bold new ideas in it. (Few Presidents do something as big and bold as health care reform and then have an encore equally big and bold.)
But what they missed is that the speech was a ringing endorsement of activist government. It supported not government that accomplishes everything by itself but, rather, government that carries out two important tasks: (1) Providing the public infrastructure and regulations that businesses need to create jobs and innovate in a way that serve the public as well as themselves and (2) Creating opportunities for everyone, opportunities that not only keeps the promise of America to all our citizens and enables us to benefit from the talents of each and every one of us.
Government doesn’t accomplish those tasks in one big program but in a lot of different programs, some small and some big. Many of those program are, to one degree or another, already in place. So the immediate task of a Democratic President is to fight the right wing effort to cut them back and to tweak and improve them to suit the conditions of 21st century life.
At a time when Republicans keep repeating radical ideas about drastically reducing the size and scope of our government, Obama’s defense of active government sharply distinguished our philosophy from their philosophy. It answered their claim that opportunity and prosperity is provided by little or no government with the claim that opportunity and prosperity is provided by active government in which we do together what we can’t do separately.
This is the common sense of the vast majority of Americans. We are not ideologues here. We don’t believe in a vast state that provides us we everything we might want. We do believe in the importance of individual initiative and responsibility. But we also believe that government can directly or indirectly provide enhance our prospect for living well and make our lives more just.
President Obama task last night was to articulate the philosophical center of our politics in a way that was meant to appeal to an American philosophy so deeply rooted in us that we don’t even recognize it as a philosophy. We’re pragmatists in America. We care about what works. We don’t want a government bigger than necessary. But we also see no reason to deny ourselves a government that works for us out of some ideological convictions divorced from the practical problems of our lives. Nor do we think it is wrong to ask everyone to contribute to support such a government and to do so in proportion to the benefits they have received from our commonwealth.
President Obama gave us lots of concrete examples of Americans whose own lives, and whose ability to contribute to the lives of others, were enhanced because of one government program or another. Those kinds of examples of government working for both individuals and the common good are the best way to answer the ideologues of the Republican Party.
And while showing us that government can work, President Obama also showed us that a government rooted in our pragmatism can be inspiring as well. Activist government speaks to some thing deep within us. It speaks to our desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves, a community in which we are not just employees, employers and customers but also citizens united by some common goals. And it speaks to our desire to work together to create a world that is just, one in which everyone has the dignity and respect they deserve.
So this wasn’t a speech in which the programs and policies and arguments about them were front and center. Bill Clinton gave that speech the other night and it seems that many of the pundits were so impressed by Clinton’s inspiring wonkery that they were looking for the same from the President. There was no need to replicate Clinton’s achievement, however. Nor was there any need to provide bold new plans for the future. The programs the President put forward were, like the stories of individuals he told, not there to lay out an agenda or plan for the future but, rather, to articulate a philosophy of government that most of us instinctively and that is radically different from the philosophy put forward by the Republicans.
For this election is not about agendas, plans, and programs to meet this or that problem which we all recognize. There are some problems we recognize. We all care about economic growth and jobs. But there are many other problems that are no longer held by all to be common. The Republicans no longer think that poverty or lack of educational opportunity or lack of health care or scientific or medical research are common problems. They no longer think it is our task to address them together. And they no longer think there are common solutions to even those problems that we commonly acknowledge, jobs and the economy. The think the only task of government is to get out of the way.
When the differences between us are so great, then the first task of a statesman in a democracy is not to present a plan or agenda but to articulate the fundamental ways in which we disagree and offer the American people an opportunity to choose one philosophical path or another. That’s what the President did last night. In articulating a vision of what our government should be, the President was truly inspiring because he clarified the meaning of the work each of us will do in the next few months and in the years beyond it to realize that vision.
If you were looking for an agenda and a plan or new bold programs you probably found the speech disappointing. But the President saw beyond what the pundits were looking for to what all of us needed to hear: a clear statement of the alternatives before us. And he did it so well that I have no doubt which path America will choose.