What was interesting over the last week is that Obama certainly did not use the occasion of the passage of health care reform to argue for liberal principles in any simple way, but I think he may be building a profound case not for a liberal set of ideas, but for a positive view of political action in general, one that could then be harnessed for activist government, but is more broad than that. I took a look at Obama's four speeches on the passage of health care reform: his statement Sunday night after the House passed the bill, his two sets of remarks on signing the bill into law, and his follow-up rally in Iowa. Most of the remarks, of course, were about health care, about the new law, and about the benefits that people will get. I can, however, identify a few broader themes Obama seems to be interested in.
1. The least interesting, and the least impressive to me at least, theme is the old Wilsonian story of the people vs. the special interests. Here he is at the Interior Department:
And although it may be my signature that's affixed to the bottom of this bill, it was your work, your commitment, your unyielding hope that made this victory possible. When the special interests deployed an army of lobbyists, an onslaught of negative ads, to preserve the status quo, you didn't give up. You hit the phones and you took to the streets. You mobilized and you organized. You turned up the pressure and you kept up the fight.The same denunciation of "special interests" and "lobbyists" shows up in all four speeches; in his inaugural address, it was called "protecting narrow interests." It's often paired in these statements with, I think it's fair to call, contempt for "mistrust and cynicism" which goes with pundits. So: "Tonight, at a time when the pundits said it was no longer possible, we rose above the weight of our politics." That's a striking way, I think, to begin his statement Sunday night; not that health care passed, but that the pundits were proved wrong.
2. This gets to the second major theme, which is that America must do "big things." What's wrong with pundits and special -- narrow -- interests is that they prevent those big things from happening. In this, much of what he says sounds to me like a response to James Fallows (link is to his original article), who in fact saw it working as such. Here's the key paragraph, again from the Interior Department speech:
Despite decades in which Washington failed to tackle our toughest challenges, despite the smallness of so much of what passes for politics these days, despite those who said that progress was impossible, you made people believe that people who love this country can still change it. But as we tackle all these other challenges that we face, as we continue on this journey, we can take our next steps with new confidence, with a new wind at our backs -- because we know it's still possible to do big things in America -- (applause) -- because we know it's still possible to rise above the skepticism, to rise above the cynicism, to rise above the fear; because we know it's still possible to fulfill our duty to one another and to future generations. (Applause.)
3. This gets us to the largest point. Obama there contrasted doing "big things" with "the smallness of so much of what passes for politics these days," just as on Sunday he began by saying that we rose "above the weight of our politics." There are two ways one can go here. The progressive, Wilsonian, move is to say that "politics" is the problem. Politics is about petty ambitions and "special" interests, and in interferes with the president, who is the tribune of the people, doing what everyone really knows is right. I do see hints of that in Obama's rhetoric.
But there's another, very different theme here. It shows up in his phrasing -- politics isn't bad, but "what passes for politics" is impoverished, presumably compared to what politics is supposed to be. I think this is also related to his famous inaugural insistence that "the time has come to set aside childish things." So, at the bill-signing:
But today, we are affirming that essential truth -– a truth every generation is called to rediscover for itself –- that we are not a nation that scales back its aspirations. (Applause.) We are not a nation that falls prey to doubt or mistrust. We don't fall prey to fear. We are not a nation that does what's easy. That's not who we are. That's not how we got here.
Joe Biden emphasized, in introducing Obama at the bill-signing, that "History is made:"
History is made when men and women decide that there is a greater risk in accepting a situation that we cannot bear than in steeling our spine and embracing the promise of change. That's when history is made.Which recalls this, from the inaugural:
In reaffirming the greatness of our nation we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted, for those that prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things -- some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor -- who have carried us up the long rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.Obama there seems to be talking about industrial "makers of things," but he might will be also speaking of those who fabricate laws and public policy. Politics, then, for Obama -- at least some of the time, or at least potentially -- is an active, positive, experience of making collective choices that organize our lives. In Iowa:
What this generation has proven today is that we still have the power to shape history. (Applause.) In the United States of America, it is still a necessary faith that our destiny is written by us, not for us. Our future is what we make it. Our future is what we make it.And, from there, to the biggest point of all, only suggested once in these texts, but powerful if it is what Obama really believes. From the bill-signing:
We are a nation that faces its challenges and accepts its responsibilities. We are a nation that does what is hard. What is necessary. What is right. Here, in this country, we shape our own destiny. That is what we do. That is who we are. That is what makes us the United States of America.This is, really, a very strong claim. What Obama is saying here is that politics, rightly understood, is the very core of what makes this nation a nation. Not individualism, not religiosity, and certainly not ethnicity or the land itself, but politics. It's a view of the United States that looks not to underlying social conditions (as Lowry and Ponnuru do in their recent essay), but to its founding in political action, in the Revolution and then the framing of the Constitution. Of course, the fact of the Revolution and the Constitution can be seen as a consequence of its underlying conditions -- but Obama here, at least, rejects that point of view. We, in the United States, do not accept history, or live through history -- we have the capacity, Obama (and Biden) say, to make history, through collective action, whether it is in the Revolution, the Constitution, the Civil War, the civil rights revolution, or now, in tackling the challenges that face us in the 21st century. America, therefore, is self-created, and continues to be self-creating, by political action.
Is that, in fact, what Obama is saying? I'm really not sure. As I said after the health care summit, there's yet another strain of Obama's thought that seems to be about Washington-speak -- that what's wrong with politics is that pols talk in poll-tested spin, instead of actually saying what they mean. I'm not sure whether all the pieces here cohere into one general idea of politics and democracy. Nor, of course, is it easy to sort through Obama's own spin and poll-tested language -- he may not like it, but he certainly engages in it as much as any other pol. So for now, I'll just limit it to calling these a set of themes, and not try to put it all together or conclude what he "really" thinks. I do, however, intend to continue to follow this thread. He is, I'm starting to think, a most promising politician.