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Saturday, September 08, 2012

The President's Speech

Barack Obama’s acceptance speech showed him at his best—so much so that Republicans raced to their computers to argue that it had fallen flat. It didn’t: the enthusiasm factor within the Democratic Convention was far, far higher than that within the Republican one throughout the proceedings. Obama rediscovered his candidate’s voice, which ironically, in my opinion, is much more presidential than what we have heard from him for most of the last four years. He spoke in firm, measured cadences, and I noticed only one brief moment when he affected a touch of his put-on down home accent. He also returned repeatedly the great problem of our times, but the gingerly way in which he handled it showed that any real solution is many years away.

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.


Anonymous said...


bottom line for a human life is 5$

The pendulum won't swing back, to quote from Jude the Obscure, "Because We are too Many", and that on earth mind you and the resources are too little. It was easy having a better life while the pie was growing but now we will all be fighting like in the famine in Europe in ca. 1200 where the rich cut themselves off and let the poor starve en masse. The rich have lots of ammo (a billion rounds for the govt. agencies alone) and fortified houses and the military so we cannot hope for much mercy from Homeland Security for the generation titled Homelanders (the new "Silents").

If Obama just put the bankers in charge of the business end it is like putting the fox in charge of the hen coop. The dems are just the repubs with a softer tone but no change in policy. If Paul Ryan would be Prez and SNAP were eliminated then we would see a revolution and get down to brass tacks instead of stretching this thing out till the 2020s due to the softheartedness of "bleeding heart liberals millionaires in congress (you know - Ted Kennedy types). If the droughts come hard and furious due to climate change then it might not nmatter as food will cost too much anyway. That is what caused the Arab Spring, high food prices due to Russian heat wave. Political stability starts in people's stomachs ( A variation on "All politics is local".)

I hope writing the anger form my chest is not too offensive to you in these campaign days.


CrocodileChuck said...

galactic surfer +1


Wally said...

Labrookes has Obama at 4/11, Romney at 2/1 odds.

Here in MO they have McCaskill at 4/7, Akin at 5/4

Intrade : Obama 56.8%, McCaskill 63.3%

Literally putting your money where your mouth is. Personally, I think outstate MO *is* crazy enough to put Akin into the Senate.

Bruce Wilder said...

Beautifully and elegantly summarized.

I admire your ability to maintain a dignified perspective, and to credit Obama as something better than a vicious conman, but I don't share it.

Obama's function in our politics is to serve the kleptocracy, by preventing effective opposition from the Left. On most economic issues, he's farther Right than any Republican President we've had since, at least, Hoover. The most reasonable explanation for the ineptness of Romney and Obama's political strategy is that the fix is in. Obama has aimed squarely for that sweet spot, where he can usher in extensions of the Bush taxcuts for the wealthy and cuts in Social Security, while presiding over continued declines in wages and living standards for 50% to 80% of the population.

Between crisis in the Euro and China's imminent collapse into economic and political chaos, I fully expect the Depression to intensify in the second term. Oddly, the problems in Europe and China may serve to cushion things for the U.S., relieving the pressure on oil supplies and the dollar, just as the British boat was lifted by the Great Depression of the 1930s, even as its underlying decline as Empire and economic power accelerated.

Obama, the Muslim socialist/liberal that he is [not, obviously], will be hooverized, along with any kind of progressive idea of economic justice and decency. At least, I think that's the kleptocrats' plan. That there plausibly seems to be something like a coherent kleptocrat plan in motion is pretty scary. Some people find "conspiracy theories" easy to dismiss, and that can be a basis for psychological defenses. And, it may be nothing more than the interests of a generation and a ruling class, grown irresponsible and unmindful of consequences during an eruption of corruption. But, the Romney campaign notwithstanding, they seem to know how to manage a propaganda operation par excellance; Obama has been a marvelous innovation in counter-revolution.

It doesn't matter, really. There is no effective Left, and what there is, will be shortly discredited, and the institutional foundation for an authoritarian political structure has been put in place, for the collapse.

Even without any leadership, ideas or memories of justice from the Left, the anger will come.