Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Liberal Reagan redux

E.J. Dionne compares Obama's structural approach to the SOTU to Reagan's while contrasting the two presidents' political philosophies:
Reagan laid out what became the major themes of his campaign, including not only the nation’s recovery from economic turmoil but also his central philosophical purpose: a continuing battle against “the tendency of government to grow.”

Obama’s speech was Reagan’s turned on its head. Like Reagan, Obama previewed his election arguments in a philosophically aggressive way. But Obama’s claim was the opposite of Reagan’s. Obama spoke of government’s essential role in ensuring shared prosperity and in creating an America “built to last” — a slogan drawn, perhaps not accidentally, from truck commercials for General Motors, the company whose rescue Obama engineered.

Dionne seems mildly surprised by the reverse-Reaganism:

It was to be expected that, in the course of his State of the Union address, President Obama would mention the killing of Osama bin Laden, whose death represented the culmination of the battle against terrorism that began on Sept. 11, 2001.

Far less expected was Obama’s use of the bin Laden episode to present a community-minded worldview that contrasts so sharply with the highly individualistic and anti-government message that has been heard over and over from the Republicans seeking to replace him.
The surprise is somewhat warranted by the infuriating year in which Obama directed his indignation at "Congress" and "Washington" as he tried to cut a deal with adversaries openly devoted to destroying him. But that was a detour (that ended last Labor Day). Obama's whole career -- on the national stage, at least -- has been an extended attempt to turn Reaganism on its head.

After a year of revenue-free deficit reduction, it's easy to forget that Obama's two-year presidential campaign was a pitch to move the American center back to the left, to roll back the tide of growing income inequality, to restore trust in an active government committed to shared prosperity.  His epic campaign had a master narrative: at various crisis points in American history, Americans renewed and expanded their commitment to "fairness" and "a common stake in each other's success" and equal opportunity. Over the last 20-30 years -- since Reagan's attack on big government, that commitment had frayed, and the time for renewal and restoration was at hand. If I may run the tape from my chronicling the narrative back then:

From How Obama frames our history, variations on a theme (June 12, 2008; links to referenced speeches in original post):
We've been here before/Let's get back:
  • 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 (Raleigh).
  • Back in the 1950s, Americans were put to work building the Interstate Highway system and that helped expand the middle class in this country. We need to show the same kind of leadership today. That's why I've called for a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank that will invest $60 billion over ten years and generate millions of new jobs (Pittsburgh).
  • 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 (New York).

From Janesville: Obama gets down to tax brass (focused on an Feb. 13, 2008 speech):
His calls to national unity that many find so stirring and that some find vacuous are wrapped round his call to reverse the tide of income inequality that's been rising for thirty-plus years.

In fact, he casts income redistribution -- "at a time when we have greater income disparity in the country than we've seen since the first year of the Great Depression" -- as an imperative of fulfilling the American Dream. That's his key to winning the center.

There are several steps to this move-the-center-left gambit. First, Obama frames income redistribution at this time as simple fairness and a collective responsibility:
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.
"Balance" suggests the center: the nation has careered rightward. "Responsibility" is a Republican buzzword -- but Obama applies it to the community rather than the individual. And "fairness" - who's going to quarrel with that? [snip]
Obama casts the current "imbalance" as a temporary aberration -- a condition we have more than enough strength to fix:
But that doesn't mean we have to accept an America of lost opportunity and diminished dreams. Not when we still have the most productive, highly-educated, best-skilled workers in the world. Not when we still stand on the cutting edge of innovation, and science, and discovery. Not when we have the resources and the will of a decent, generous people who are ready to share in the burdens and benefits of a global economy. I am certain that we can keep America's promise - for this generation and the next.
Finally, Obama makes shoring up the working poor and middle an imperative of the "unity" he always affirms, and which is often ridiculed as feel-good puffery. Here, unity is "shared sacrifice and shared prosperity": 
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.
 So welcome to the new Obama...just like the old Obama.

UPDATE 1/26: Jackie Calmes makes a similar point about the continuity in Obama's record, going back deeper into his political past:
President Obama’s election-year State of the Union address on Tuesday echoed a theme that has run through his career: Government and citizens are responsible together for the common good, even as they celebrate individualism and free markets.

As an obscure Illinois state senator, as a United States senator and as president, Mr. Obama has even used the same phrases to describe a communitarian credo rooted in American tradition, but vying always in his telling with a Darwinian alternative: you’re-on-your-own economics.
Check it out -- lots of illustrations.

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