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Monday, January 21, 2013

Our liberal history: Obama's oldest trope

In my response to Obama's second inaugural speech, I took it as a given that it's a well-worn Obama trope to equate liberal priorities with the nation's founding principles and historical development -- so much so that Obama rather abbreviated the argument this time around.

I am therefore a bit gob-smacked to note that many of those whom I like to read best seem to be assuming that the equation of active government and collective action with the credo expressed in the Declaration of Independence and with the course of American history is some kind new departure for Obama. See  Greg Sargent, Ezra Klein and James Fallows, That Obama today expanded his circle of concern to include immigrants and gays and (implicitly) safety from gun violence in new ways, I recognize. Ditto that he's dropped the pretense (or rather, belief) that acknowledging some "good ideas" from the other side will get him where he wants to go (as I noted after his convention speech).  But the core concept of government that he articulated today, and the historical support he mustered for it, were utterly familiar..

Back in June 2008, I examined Obama's deployment of our shared past in a post called "We've been here before": How Obama frames our history. Not to bore you with peripherals in that post, I've culled a few examples of such deployments from it and other 2008 Obama speeches.

Janesville, WI, Feb. 13, 2008:
when opportunity is uneven or unequal - it is our responsibility to restore balance, and fairness, and keep that promise alive for the next generation. That is the responsibility we face right now, and that is the responsibility I intend to meet as President of the United States....

In the end, this economic agenda won't just require new money. It will require a new spirit of cooperation and innovation on behalf of the American people. We will have to learn more, and study more, and work harder. We'll be called upon to take part in shared sacrifice and shared prosperity. And we'll have to remind ourselves that we rise and fall as one nation; that a country in which only a few prosper is antithetical to our ideals and our democracy; and that those of us who have benefited greatly from the blessings of this country have a solemn obligation to open the doors of opportunity, not just for our children, but to all of America's children...

It’s a promise that’s been passed down through the ages; one that each generation of Americans is called to keep – that we can raise our children in a land of boundless opportunity, broad prosperity, and unyielding possibility.

New York, New York, March 27, 2008:
But if we unite this country around a common purpose, if we act on the responsibilities that we have to each other and to our country, then we can launch a new era of opportunity and prosperity. I know we can do this because Americans have done this before. Time and again, we've recognized that common stake that we have in each other's success. That's how people as different as Hamilton and Jefferson came together to launch the world's greatest experiment in democracy. That's why our economy hasn't just been the world's greatest wealth creator – it's bound America together, it's created jobs, and it's made the dream of opportunity a reality for generations of Americans.

Raleigh, NC, June 9, 2008:
But I also know that this nation has faced such fundamental change before, and each time we've kept our economy strong and competitive by making the decision to expand opportunity outward; to grow our middle class; to invest in innovation, and most importantly, to invest in the education and well-being of our workers.

We've done this because in America, our prosperity has always risen from the bottom-up. From the earliest days of our founding, it has been the hard work and ingenuity of our people that's served as the wellspring of our economic strength. That's why we built a system of free public high schools when we transitioned from a nation of farms to a nation of factories. That's why we sent my grandfather's generation to college, and declared a minimum wage for our workers, and promised to live in dignity after they retire through the creation of Social Security. That's why we've invested in the science and research that have led to new discoveries and entire new industries. And that's what this country will do again when I am President of the United States.

With regard to fulfilling the promise of the nation's founding documents, Obama laid out his version of that quest in his great speech on race, "A More Perfect Union," on March 18, 2008:
We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.”

Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.

The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.

Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution – a Constitution that had at is very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.

And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part – through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk – to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.

This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this campaign – to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America. I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction – towards a better future for of children and our grandchildren...

The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country – a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know — what we have seen – is that America can change. That is true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope – the audacity to hope – for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination – and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past – are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds – by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.

In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world’s great religions demand – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.
Indeed, the most famous trope of the 2008 campaign -- Obama's "yes we can" mantra -- was based on the historical argument that Americans had repeatedly, at key turning points in our history, decided "yes we can" expand the circle of opportunity.  The quick-march through U.S. history with which Obama concluded his acceptance speech on election night 2008 -- a narrative shrunk to a mere abstract in today's second inaugural speech -- was meant to demonstrate the power of collective action, and faith in that power as an expression of American destiny:
For that is the true genius of America - that America can change. Our union can be perfected. And what we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations. But one that's on my mind tonight is about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. She's a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election except for one thing - Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.

She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn't vote for two reasons - because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.

And tonight, I think about all that she's seen throughout her century in America - the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can't, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can.

At a time when women's voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot. Yes we can.

When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs and a new sense of common purpose. Yes we can.

When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved. Yes we can.

She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that "We Shall Overcome." Yes we can.

A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change. Yes we can.

America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves - if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made?

This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment. This is our time - to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth - that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people:

Yes We Can. Thank you, God bless you, and may God Bless the United States of America
 A bit more on Obama's use of an idealized historical tableau, joined to incantatory prose, here.  I missed that music in yesterday's speech.

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