Saturday, January 03, 2009

Oh, balm, ah: a soothing history lesson

The economic crisis began roughly when the our late, great, endless presidential campaign began. As the crisis ripened and metastasized, Obama has adapted a bit of boilerplate into a kind of mantra, perhaps his own version of "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

The boilerplate is an historical argument: the U.S. can solve daunting problems because it's done so before. As David McCullough wrote, quoting someone, of Harry Truman's long comeback campaign in 1948: courage is having been there before.

Before the economic crisis hit its acute phase in mid-September, this message was chiefly a means for Obama to pull the country's political center to the left -- to argue, in effect, that new government action to reduce income inequality and help the poor and middle class was "conservative" in the sense of restoring core American values of fairness and shared prosperity. Now, it's morphed into an implicit rebuttal of a rising chorus of speculation that the United States is in decline. The implicit message: imbalance, political paralysis and economic hard times are cyclical, not linear phenomena. We let things get out of whack, and we self-correct--and with each self correction, move closer to fulfilling the ideals expressed in the Declaration and Constitution. Our historical path is three steps forward, two back, three forward -- not one long climb up, and a long glide down.

Here's that historical balm in the tail of Obama's radio address for this week:

I am optimistic that if we come together to seek solutions that advance not the interests of any party, or the agenda of any one group, but the aspirations of all Americans, then we will meet the challenges of our time just as previous generations have met the challenges of theirs.

There is no reason we can’t do this. We are a people of boundless industry and ingenuity. We are innovators and entrepreneurs and have the most dedicated and productive workers in the world. And we have always triumphed in moments of trial by drawing on that great American spirit—that perseverance, determination and unyielding commitment to opportunity on which our nation was founded. And in this new year, let us resolve to do so once again. Thank you.

No one who would be President can refrain from flattering the American people and paying fulsome tribute to the nation's history and ideals. But again, Obama's signature way of making these gestures contains an historical argument in which his "yes we can" is embedded. It's a would-be successor not only to "the only thing we have to fear" but to "ask not" and "morning in America."

Related posts:
What had to work with
A nation's education: Obama's conversation
We've been here before: how Obama frames our history
Audacity of Respect: What Obama Owes to Reagan II
Obama gets down to tax brass
Obama brings it back to earth in Virginia
Feb. 5: Hillary's Speech was Better than Obama's
Obama Praises Clinton, and Buries Him

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