The President's Speech
Obama began with an echo of Franklin Roosevelt, to whom he actually referred once, talking about the need to give today’s Americans the chances that his maternal grandparents had as a result of the Second World War, the GI Bill, and the general commitment to the well-being of ordinary Americans that was the hallmark of the New Deal and the decades that followed. He argued, rightly, that the Republicans offered nothing but a return to the policies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush—the policies that produced the recession. He spoke proudly, with good reason, of the auto industry bailout, which is very likely to win him the election because of its impact on Michigan and Ohio. And then, later in the speech, he spoke at length about the nation’s biggest problem. I quote:
“As Americans, we believe we are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights— rights that no man or government can take away. We insist on personal responsibility and we celebrate individual initiative. We're not entitled to success. We have to earn it. We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk-takers who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system— the greatest engine of growth and prosperity the world has ever known.
“But we also believe in something called citizenship— a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations.
“We believe that when a CEO pays his autoworkers enough to buy the cars that they build, the whole company does better.
“We believe that when a family can no longer be tricked into signing a mortgage they can't afford, that family is protected, but so is the value of other people's homes, and so is the entire economy.
“We believe that a little girl who's offered an escape from poverty by a great teacher or a grant for college could become the founder of the next Google, or the scientist who cures cancer, or the President of the United States— and it's in our power to give her that chance. . . .
“As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.”
That last line, of course, was an echo of JFK—but in far more tentative language. Obama was stating the basic, critical philosophical difference between the two parties. Is society an organism that thrives or falls together, or merely a field of battle in which the strongest must inevitably triumph? Is individual success, as Ayn Rand would have it, a mark of superior virtue before which we must all bow? (I recently heard Mark Stein, a stand-in for Rush Limbaugh, explain that the economy would never recover until we allowed the Koch brothers to make all the money that they possibly could.) Obama is evidently counting on this contrast to win the election, and because most Americans still do not blindly worship the rich and many have some understanding of how men like Mitt Romney actually make their money, this will probably work. But meanwhile, he could not resist trying to exploit the gender gap as well—even to say “a little girl or boy” was too egalitarian, it seems, in an era when boys have a disturbing habit of growing up and voting Republican. The omission of boys got a huge hand from the audience, but I wouldn’t have joined in.
The values that Obama proclaimed have been under a devastatingly effective attack for more than thirty years now, and they have had enormous intellectual and institutional consequences. He could have gone much further. The idea of thinking about the well-being of an institution, rather than simply of its bottom line, has become almost unheard of, not only in corporations or teachers unions, but also, I regret to say, in universities. And if one cannot think about the genuine well-being of an institution and the people who need it, one cannot think about the well-being of society as a whole. And that is why, I think, that despite his somewhat inspiring rhetoric, Obama could offer so little in the way of specifics—much less give us any hope that his victory would allow him to realize any of his ideals to a substantially greater extent.
Obama called once again for the restoration of the Clinton tax rate on incomes over $250,000—but he cannot bring himself to suggest that ALL employed Americans should pay the rate that put the budget into surplus in the 1990s while keeping unemployment low. The tragedy is that he could make the latter measure happen—as he could have two years ago—simply by allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire at the end of this year, but if he compromises, as he did in 2010, he will probably be unable to increase the tax burden, which the federal government really needs to do for many reasons. He did not suggest dropping the carried interest tax provision which allows hedge fund managers and bankers to pay just 15% while salaried Americans pay more than 30%. He spoke once of global warming, but he reaffirmed that he is committed, like the oil industry, to increasing domestic production of fossil fuels. He made no new proposal to deal with mortgages on underwater homes, now generally recognized as the biggest single failure of his Administration.
He confined his criticisms of the Republicans, too, to generalities rather than specifics—a sharp contrast with Harry Truman in 1948, who ran under circumstances that are in many ways very similar. Why not blast Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and Rick Scott of Florida for turning down billions of dollars for mass transit projects in the midst of the worst unemployment since the 1930s? Why not lay out some specific infrastructure targets and link them to a jobs program? Most of all, why not state, in simple language, that the Republicans have fought everything he has tried to do since January 21, 2009, and point out how they have made it nearly impossible for the federal government to function by blocking every appointment that they could? Was he too frightened to play into Republican propaganda even to call for the election of a Democratic Congress? He never did.
And all this suggests why the very likely Obama victory—more likely nearly every day, according to the authoritative Nate Silver—will probably mean four more years of gridlock and economic stagnation, or at best, very slow growth. The country needs radical changes in institutions and values, but the two generations that hold power—Boomers and Xers—are, with very rare exceptions, not interested in them. The Democratic Party as well as the Republican depends too heavily upon huge contributions to suggest that marginal tax rates on incomes in the millions ought to be at least 50%--but that is the real answer to the problem of enormous wealth that is destroying our political process. An Obama victory would have the salutary effect of proving that even after Citizens United, the Presidency can’t be bought, but money will still rule in Congress, making any kind of New Deal reforms impossible for a long time to come. It is interesting that Warren Buffett, from the Silent Generation, is the only superrich public figure calling for higher tax rates on his own class. He remembers the day when this was the norm, and the economy thrived. Boomer Bill Gates, who has worked with Buffett on many other projects, hasn’t endorsed the Buffett rule.
The re-election of Obama may mean the beginning of the end of social issues as the focus of American politics—particularly with respect to gay rights. (The abortion issue, I am sorry to say, seems to touch such deep emotional chords that I am beginning to doubt that it will ever go away.) The Tea Party is a largely older movement, and Father Time will start cutting it back in the next four years. Ironically, professionals like Karl Rove will have do some serious rethinking about the Republicans' future, it seems to me, if Romney is badly beaten and Tea Party candidates do badly again. But I don’t think there will be a real rebirth of economic progressivism in my lifetime, because the trends have been running in the wrong direction for too long, and they have had too profound an effect. Perhaps the best the Paul Krugmans, the Warren Buffetts, and, yes, the David Kaisers can do is to keep the vision of a more economically just society—one which we all experienced in our youth—alive for new generations. The pendulum will eventually swing back, and a true historian must accept all this as a reflection of essential aspects of human nature.