Friday, March 26, 2010

History Is Made

A lot of liberals have been disappointed in Barack Obama because he has not used his considerable oratorical skills in support of liberal principles, broadly speaking.  That is, Obama has not tried to convince people of the general proposition that active, vigorous government action is good for ordinary folks in all sorts of ways, and even more than that is a theoretically appealing position.  Kevin Drum, for example, has been on this for some time. 

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.


  1. I think that this is an excellent reading of Obama's core rhetorical moves:

    "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."

    What struck me in his speech to House Democrats urging passage was that he sought to valorize political careers, to say to the elected representatives that they had all at some point experienced the belief that there were things worth fighting for, and reasons to get involved.

    I for one found this to be incredibly refreshing, a remarkable refusal to engage with the cynicism that many people have about elected office. Now obviously the fact that he was talking to elected officials is a key factor here, but I would also note that it seems to be a recurring theme in his speeches. He respects those who have run for office, and while he takes the position as running for change, he doesn't seem to run as an "outsider" against "career politicians."

  2. I always like to try to get a bead on a politician's moral compass. I'd say Obama is (what I'd call) an "inclusive communitarian". The "inclusive" part is egalitarian and what makes liberal egalitarians (like me) think he's one of them, but then miss the more fundamental part, his communitarianism. Hence, the rhetoric of "not red, not blue, but united", which speaks to the community ideal, the lack of a hard sell of the fundamental liberal principle of equal effective *autonomy* (preferring instead the principle of equal effective *belonging*). It also explains his legislative caution, not wanting to get too far out front of the polity's comfort zone. It also would explain the point of this post (which I hadn't thought of before), his identification of the American project as fundamentally a political, hence collective, project. The political caution and political activism seem to conflict, but I think what seems to drive Obama nuts are obstacles that block *any* activism, even compromise solutions to things almost everyone honest and informed agrees that are a problem.

    Adding to this, there's the "liberal arts" part of his personality, which is as deeply committed to intellectual honesty as you can get in a politician who also wants to get elected and get laws made (the qualification explaining his forays into the usual boilerplate b.s. which, conveniently, overlaps with some things he sincerely believes in). It's this intellectual compass that disdains overheated, demonizing political rhetoric, that doesn't listen to and learn from the other side, and that is unwilling to horse trade.

    That's the part that I keep waiting for pundits to point out, Obama's desire to return politics to being the art of compromise, which a number of elements cited above (politics is for making headway on important problems, we're the purple states of america, reasonable people can disagree...and cut deals, etc.)

    Apologies for length.

  3. "...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..."

    Don't forget his by-name swipe at GOP pollster Frank Luntz during his give-and-take at the GOP winter retreat at the end of January. You're on to something with the above thought...

  4. Very good piece and insightful observations.

  5. Two years ago, I felt that the difference between the three democratic frontrunners could be summed up like this: John Edwards wanted to reform the economy, Hillary Clinton wanted to reform society, and Barak Obama wanted to reform politics. I am still not sure whether people who voted for Obama necessarily understood or supported what he wanted to do, but he took this has a mandate and, inch by inch, he is doing it. He sincerely believes that Americans can do anything they want to do -- "Yes, we can" is the essence of his being. In the end, if he CAN reform American politics, then society and the economy will follow. The Teabaggers who are so opposed to him call him names like fascist and communist because they don't know WHAT to call him, but in some visceral way they recognize what the progressives so far have not -- that Obama actually is aiming to change the way politics is being practiced in America, creating a significant, non-partisan, forward-looking change in how American democracy functions. This is terribly threatening to some on both the right and the left, who are too comfortable with the existing system.

  6. Fascinating post, and I really enjoyed the comments as well. Thanks.

    Cathy, I think you've correctly identified Obama's ambition, and yet the *how* of getting there is what I'm still conflicted over. I would like, more than anything, to be part of that "significant, non-partisan, forward-looking" change in American politics. But when I see and hear the crazy 30% out there - lately embodied in the teabagger crowd - spreading their lies and hate and psychosis, my first instinct is to hit them back as ferociously and directly as possible. I can't seem to get into Obama's "brush 'em off" mindset.

  7. all great points but i like the part about playing the long game best. every time i see/hear this man at some public function or on tv i am more than struck by how everyone else is entirely focused on the narrow and immediate while he seems to be somewhere off in the distance. i don't mean that in a man of vision sort of way, just that he seems to occupy some other kind of space than everyone else. i don't love this man because he's black, or progressive, or from chicago, or harvard educated, or even not-bush. i love this man because he's 6 to 8 moves ahead of everyone else. an actual leader, not just someone who's been elected to a leadership role. that's what i think has everybody so freaked out. it's been just forever since we've had anyone with bonified leadership skills at the helm that we've lost the ability to first recognize it and then give it credence.

  8. Don't forget that Obama has set up a grassroots organizing campaign inside of the DNC, that is organizing as we speak, congressional district by district to involve people. Sure he has a lot of rhetoric and skills applied at the top but he's really transforming the way the base is working too.

  9. An excellent post, and very insightful comments. I think I agree most with Rex's thoughts on Obama's communitarianism. Back in 2006, when I was working for a nonprofit, I did an analysis of Obama's Knox College commencement address, and came to some similar conclusions. It starts on page 14 of this PDF if you're interested.

    In that speech, he described America as "a place where destiny was not a destination, but a journey to be shared and shaped and remade."

    And that, for me, remains Obama's basic argument. America's real promise is one of inclusion and opportunity. With that opportunity comes a responsibility we all share to actively shape this radical project of democracy that we're all engaged in.

    And of course it's politics that is the means to do that.

    Thanks for a great post. I'd love to see more on this topic, Jonathan. I think it's fascinating.

  10. An excellent post, with excellent comments in the thread.

    Lots of commentators---from the left and from the right---seem to have trouble getting a handle of Obama and his approach to politics.

    That may be because a big part of Obama's thinking about politics comes from the organizers who carried on "After Alinsky" (also the title of a 1990 book by Illinois community organizers, among them a young Barack Obama).

    Over the last 30 years, organizers at the Gamaliel Foundation and the Industrial Areas Foundation (Obama learned from both, primarily Gamaliel), as well as organizers at similar organizing networks (PICO, DART, IVP and others), have put together an ever-evolving body of knowledge about how to engage effectively in public life.

    Part of that knowledge is relational---the habits and customs that make for powerful and effective relationships in the public arena. Part of that knowledge is intellectual---habits of mind and ways of thinking about the world that, again, contribute to more powerful and effective ways of engaging in public life.

    It's interesting to watch some of Obama's opponents struggle to understand this organizing tradition and put it to use. Beck, Limbaugh, and some of the Tea Partiers (among others) are buying copies of Saul Alinsky's "Rules for Radicals", and citing Gandhi and King as role models for action.

    What they don't seem to have grasped yet is twofold:

    1) to adopt the strategies and tactics of Gandhi, King, Alinsky, etc., to build a right-wing political culture and organizations, will require from them decades of persistent, disciplined, unglamorous work to rebuild their political power; and,

    2) if they are serious about building a relational political culture to counter the culture that helped shape President Obama, they will have to (sooner rather than later) separate themselves from the violent and extremist culture that now seems to be taking over the Republican party, and the conservative movement as a whole.

  11. Candidate Obama once said he wanted "to make politics cool again". judging by the well thought out, troll free comments on a great blog post by Mr. Bernstein dare i say he's making some headway?

  12. Seriously? People think this is "deep" interpretation? Political entities are what political actions they perform?

    No shit.

    And moral entities are constituted by what moral actions they perform, sentient entities by sentient actions, football entities by football actions, and so on.

    Guessing this blogger is a litcridiot, to whom precious little in this world is obvious.

    Gah. The things that pass as deep thinking in this country...

  13. Just a random observation: can you imagine George W. Bush comprehending any of Obama's speech, let alone writing/editing it?

  14. Sounds very much like Hannah Arendt in "On Revolution" and "The Human Condition".

  15. To me, much of these post-health care speeches took me back to Obama's most personal speech of the campaign: Philadelphia, and the fact America is not perfect but can consistently be perfected. That, although his most speech, was also his most honest and personal speech. He's just carrying the theme forward as he puts those principles into action. He's empowering himself while at the same time empowering his fellow citizens.

  16. This is, indeed, a fascinating topic. What I found so interesting about Obama during the campaign was that he seemed to want to change the whole game. He was a Democratic candidate...but also something more. He acted within the media narrative, but also created his own counter-narrative. He didn't look at the existing field and say, "What position do I play?" Instead, he came with his own game, and tried to find as many people as possible to join him in it. Like others have said, he is a true leader; not just in title, but in character. Part of what I find so fascinating is that the media has not, so far, nailed down what made (and makes) him so attractive. It's not that he's black, or liberal. It's not even that he's a great orator. I thing it's this "leadership" quality.

    Anyway, I could go on and on about this. Like I said, fascinating topic.

  17. Whenever I feel down about the state of politics in our country, I like to go back and re-read this post and the comments. While I've been an admirer of Obama since before the 2008 primaries, it's always good to see why he is a unique public figure, and how his profoundly American vision of politics is necessary in our country, especially at this moment. I hope to hell he's able to not only beat the GOP challenger, but enable American citizens to believe once more that we can chart a successful course for our country.


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