Thursday, February 12, 2009

Obama's liberal Lincoln

On Lincoln's 200th birthday, in the latest of a long series of tributes to Lincoln, Obama cast Lincoln as the avatar of union - that is, of commitment to the collective effort that removes the fetters from individual effort. He drew his usual long historical framework: that we can meet the challenges of the moment because "we have been here before" -- Americans have, historically, mustered the collective will required to meet enormous challenges. Within that larger story, he set his usual shorter historical narrative -- the story of the last thirty years -- with unusual clarity and compression.

The short frame is: Reagan was a legitimate corrective to a state that had grown bloated; the Republicans who followed him were an overcorrection; it is time to restore collective effort, commitment to the common good, faith in government as a instrument in collective problem solving. Obama implicitly casts himself as an instrument of democratic self-correction:

And yet, while our challenges may be new, they did not come about overnight. Ultimately, they result from a failure to meet the test that Lincoln set. To be sure, there have been times in our history when our government has misjudged what we can do by individual effort alone, and what we can only do together; when it has done things that people can – or should – do for themselves. Our welfare system, for example, too often dampened individual initiative, discouraging people from taking responsibility for their own upward mobility. With respect to education, we have all too frequently lost sight of the role of parents, rather than government, in cultivating a thirst for knowledge and instilling those qualities of a good character – hard work, discipline, and integrity – that are so important to educational achievement and professional success.

But in recent years, we’ve seen the pendulum swing too far in the opposite direction. It’s a philosophy that says every problem can be solved if only government would step out of the way; that if government were just dismantled, divvied up into tax breaks, and handed out to the wealthiest among us, it would somehow benefit us all. Such knee-jerk disdain for government – this constant rejection of any common endeavor – cannot rebuild our levees or our roads or our bridges. It cannot refurbish our schools or modernize our health care system; lead to the next medical discovery or yield the research and technology that will spark a clean energy economy.

Once again, Obama casts moving the center left as a restoration of core American values. (Elsewhere, he's drafted not only Lincoln but Hamilton into this historical narrative -- two of our leaders, ironically, who arguably did most to empower industrial and financial elites, as well as strong central government and collective effort.) He presents Lincoln's railroads, and his land grants, and his land-grant colleges, as precursors of his own intended alternative energy investments, and job creation, and school reform. He embraces Lincoln's injunction to “lift artificial weights from all shoulders [and give] all an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life" as the essence of what he has often defined as the always-unfinished American drive toward a "more perfect union."

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