Posts Tagged ‘Barack Obama’
There is the conservative critique of Barack Obama that contends that he has grown the size and scope of government too much; then there is the liberal charge that he has moved to the middle and forfeited the progressive moment. The first is more true, the second more stinging to an administration that believes it is on the verge of breaking the political right.
There is a third case, however, that is tied not to a theory of how big or small government should be but to the idea that a leader has obligations to speak with precision and clarity about the nature of the country’s burdens. By that elusive standard, the famously slippery Bill Clinton still fares well on an issue like welfare reform, where he reminded his base that an entitlement that penalizes work is a social disaster. Jimmy Carter, for that matter, deserves points for an energy policy that meant to cap the rising dependence on foreign oil at 1978 import levels, which had future presidents stuck to his efforts, would have us paying $2.25 at the gas pump.
President Obama gets low marks on the precision and the clarity scale when he outlines a budgetary vision that treats Medicare and Social Security as asterisks and not the biggest driver of deficits, and trusts the future of Medicare in particular to the old trope of going after “waste, fraud and abuse.” He gets similarly low marks when his defense of healthcare reform channels Newt Gingrich’s tirade about unelected judges trumping our venerable elected congressmen (whose job rating bats .100) And he gets barely passing grades on his case for the Buffett Rule, a kind of minimum tax for millionaires that would trim the deficit next year by the grand sum of a tenth of one percent while diminishing charitable giving much more.
There is a particular kind of cynicism in the Buffett Rule, given its fractional impact on spending and the small amount of money it frees up in a cavernous budget. It is a kind of “statement” politics that puts the president on record against the insulated rich without making much of any down-payment on narrowing the gap between the 99% and the 1%; to the contrary, the strategy disingenuously blames the inequality problem on the tax code rather than, say, the dropout rate, the educational quality gap, the persistent challenges in starting a small business, and the under-water home values that have cut down the step-ladder to wealth for most families.
The Buffett rule is easier to explain than a systematic push to boost up the middle class; for that matter, court-bashing and “Social Darwinism” (once racist inspired theories of genetic progress, now a short-hand for Republican plans to contain spending at Bill Clinton era levels) have the virtue of easy listening too. It’s been a long road from the lofty promises of new beginnings on a cold 2007 day in Springfield. Or maybe it’s just the “but” that follows “yes we can”.
I’ve written previously about the challenges Barack Obama and other liberals have in building a communitarian case for their politics. I share William Galston’s perspective that the strains and dislocation in our society are at odds with the ideal of mutual obligation, and would add that a number of liberal-approved policies have contributed to that polarization. It’s worth pondering though, whether today’s conservatives do much better.
The short answer is that they don’t and often don’t try. At worst, most of the right fears that communitarian rhetoric is a cover for imposing an elite set of values over theirs, and for redistributionist tax and spend policies. To the extent there are conservative sympathizers (a Ross Douthat comes to mind), theirs is an enthusiasm for a localized brand of community, that relies on the vigor of private associations and faith based institutions. It’s a long way from the canvass Mario Cuomo was painting about a national “family”, or Obama’s contemporary efforts to draw from the unifying experience of the military or the mobilization of resources to build our national infrastructure.
On one hand, the conservative skepticism makes perfect sense. At a visceral level, the political right realizes that the cohesiveness liberals are invoking has pretty one-sided policy aims: realigning the tax burden, reaffirming the vitality of entitlements, and growing government’s reach into the economy, from capital markets to health-care to the energy sector. Conservatives also sense that liberals are not exactly agnostic in their viewpoints about the social values of a national “community”—it’s a pro-choice, pro gay marriage sensibility that openly distrusts any argument that incorporates, references, or elevates tradition or overt faith. Conservatives are quick to puncture the contradiction of embracing community while rolling eyeballs over some of its most conventional elements.
But as understandable as their resistance may be, it’s worth noting that the last conservative icon had more than a passing acquaintance with one of the most florid renditions of communitarian rhetoric. Ronald Reagan was a serial quoter of John Winthrop’s searing metaphor about America as a “shining city on a hill”, and often included the most utopian parts: the references to our fates “being bound one to another”, and the description of the American identity as one that aligned the weak and the strong alike. In fact, it’s an imagery so powerfully associated with the 40th president that one of his eulogists, Sandra Day O’Connor, attributed many of the lines to Reagan.
Is the language of shared responsibility helpful to a Republican who believes that individual freedom is being weakened and that defending it should be the sole enterprise of the conservative movement? Not likely. But there is another brand of conservatism that should grasp that society is linked by certain moral understandings, and that dangerous things happen when those arrangements come undone. This conservative reading ascribes the flight from corporate responsibility in the last decade to a slow unraveling of a social ethic—the notion that markets managed their power with restraint, and prudence, and that their accumulation of wealth was anchored to a morality that connected reward to work. Under this reasoning, the consolidation of risk into exotic financial instruments and a compensation structure that was un-tethered from merit turned that ethic on its head.
The liberal rendition of the economic near-collapse also captures some flavor of the aforementioned argument. The liberal version sails way beyond it though, to a denigration of wealth aggregating in any circumstance—moral, amoral, or otherwise. Think, as an example, Elizabeth Warren’s stump speech that almost all wealth and power is a giveaway in the form of corporate privileges or tax breaks, and that its time to pay the piper. It’s dubious, poorly descriptive economics, but it resonates with a country that prefers an implicit moral code that applies to powerful people too, over a rugged competition of the fittest.
Imagine a conservatism that was concerned with moral arrangements and reciprocity in a badly scattered society. That kind of conservatism might have the stature to distinguish profit from profiteering, and to defend the creativity of the private market as innovation worth preserving and not over-regulating. It might broaden the conservative case to address the deteriorating, abysmal state of public education, and would confront the teachers unions’ complacency as an affront to our shared values of accountability. It could only strengthen the brief against a bloated entitlement structure that pays Medicare recipients benefits equaling three times what they pay in; and that is financed in a starkly unprogressive manner.
As William Galston acknowledges, there is a legitimate tension in communitarian appeals that conservatives are right to avoid. If the idealized community has no vibrant role for local churches, or sectarian associations, it’s guilty of false advertising. It’s also a red flag when Chris Christie is assailed as a George Wallace for preferring a statewide vote on same-sex marriage to a legislative resolution: what kind of national community doesn’t recognize that local communities can organize under their own social institutions, and that states and local localities can lean left or right within the space of a broad federal constitutional framework? (that also means Mississippi can be more restrictive on access to abortions than New York, that Florida can walk away from affirmative action in college admissions when California might not want to).
But in a party that reveres Reagan for bringing it out of the wilderness, there’s something to learn from what he had to say about ties that bind us. It’s hard for conservatives to celebrate a country as exceptional, and then shrink from defining the common values that make it so.
William Galston has been writing with authority about communitarian politics since I was an adolescent, and his recent essay in New Republic may be the best thing written yet on the strengths and defects of Barack Obama’s rhetorical embrace of “community”. It’s a window, for reasons intentional and unintentional, into why modern liberals have struggled so much with building a broad case for their most cherished reforms.
As Galston observes, communitarian language has deep roots in American civic tradition, from the pilgrim John Winthrop’s “shining city on a hill”, a biblical phrase that he reshaped into a clarion call for shared sacrifice and mutuality; to Teddy Roosevelt’s New Nationalism and its paen to heroic civic vigor; to Mario Cuomo’s 1984 Democratic keynote address, which elegantly describes “the family of America, recognizing that at the heart of the matter we are bound to one another.” The same strains have surfaced prominently in Obama’s best recent efforts—including the Osawatomie, Kansas “inequality” speech in December, and the State of the Union.
It’s a rich, moving way of describing the ties that bind Americans. But as Galston concedes, it’s fared imperfectly for modern liberals, especially Obama, whose modest rebound in recent polls seems tied more to improved unemployment ratings and the travails of the Republican field than to any rhetorical strategy. Indeed, the case can be made that the sharp rise in consumer confidence and the demolition derby the Republicans are waging should be yielding even greater gains for Obama, whom Gallup and Quinnipiac still peg at a lackluster 45 percent approval rating.
Galston deserves enormous credit for resisting the liberal line that America is too steeped in selfish materialism or anti-multicultural backlash for a community based argument to take hold. Instead of lapsing into judgment, Galston points out that “the instances of [community] solidarity [Obama] invokes lie well outside the experience of most Americans today.” Among the litany of reasons why, Galston cites the chasm between the career prospects of children of two professional parents and kids of single parent drop-outs; the fact that labor market stability is so unconnected to corporate profit; and the un-egalitarian composition of our armed forces.
He might have added to the list the ideological split between secular, advanced degree urban dwellers and evangelicals with two years of college or less in the exurbs and suburbs. He might have also noted the generational fault-line around retirement programs, and the distribution of Americans into seniors who are reaping more substantial benefits from programs like Medicare than they ever contributed, and millenials and thirty-somethings who are financing a retirement apparatus that is unlikely to be around for them.
Omissions aside, Galston is dead-on in his observation that few Americans experience the sense of attachment to their fellow citizens that Obama is idealizing. But having masterfully diagnosed the short-comings of communitarian rhetoric, Galston fades into cliché when describing the solution. The “steady appeal to common sense and common decency” he proposes sounds more like a conduct standard for freshman dorm life than a political argument. It’s a telling lapse, though, that suggests why the left struggles to broaden its coalition. For all of their ventures into the language of reciprocity, and mutual obligation, modern liberals (even creative ones like Galston) invariably associate our national ills solely with their antagonists on the right. Income inequality is a problem that is laid at the doorstep of rapacious Wall Street policies and corporate influence in shaping the tax code. There is scarce reference to the undermining of education reform by teacher’s unions or the degradation of both learning and cultural assimilation that still rages in inner city neighborhoods—two trends that deepen unequal achievement levels for the black and brown.
The left is quick to attribute lower middle/working class alienation to economic trends like stagnant compensation and globalization. That’s a partial truth that obscures two culture-driven forces—the competitive disadvantage working class kids face in entering the most elite colleges and the wage pressure illegal immigrant labor exacts on unskilled American labor. It’s a critique, in other words, that conveniently ignores the unintended consequences of liberal policies like race based affirmative action and soft border enforcement.
Rather than paint a more comprehensive picture of why Americans are losing faith in our systems, liberals have been content to source the blame out to a card-board, one-dimensional set of villains: the multi-national corporations and over-sized capital markets that have hoarded prosperity and all but bribed policy-makers into protecting their ill-gotten gains. A not altogether false description, but one that only partly resonates with the many Americans who know the crisis is deeper and more complex, and implicates sacred cows of the left as well as the right.
If liberals appreciate that some of their own policy priorities burden down-scale workers, you wouldn’t know it from their rhetoric about low-income whites voting against their own interests. It’s also been awhile since Obama has lamented the persistent culture of entitlement in the inner city, or since the Democratic Party has cast a critical glance at the way its own client groups impede accountability and reform in the social services or education sectors; to the contrary, the party has forfeited the critique to conservatives who all too often confuse reform with down-sizing.
The result is that the liberal communitarian appeal is essentially a rallying cry to the Democratic base. Instead of an urgent call to renew communal bonds, it sounds like a well-worn legal indictment of the faults of the one percent: heavy on a blow by blow recitation of the ways the powerful have gone awry, over-inclusive in the list of wrongs attached to their waywardness. It’s cold comfort to a serious thinker like Galston that the political right has all but abandoned community as a social organizing principle in favor of an exclusive focus on liberty and individualism: even on ground that the right is not contesting, the left is floundering to find its footing.