Monday, May 07, 2012

Obama, four years later

Like Alec MacGillis, I am reassured that Obama's 'populism' on the campaign stump, as unveiled in two rallies this weekend, is of the signature Obama variety - -"communitarian" in MacGillis' apt characterization, "less 'us versus them' than 'all together now.'"  That doesn't mean not hitting Republican policies hard any more than it did in 2008  -- it was only in the thick of failed budget negotiations in 2011 that Obama pulled his punches with regard to the GOP agenda.

One difference with 2008 thus far, though. Obama's pitch then was to reform our politics as well as our policies -- his promise to find common ground with Republicans chimed harmoniously with his assertions that Americans had historically committed themselves to the common good. Now, it's only his policies  -- not the political process in which the rival parties are bound to work -- that he is presenting in a "communitarian" vein -- balancing capitalism's individual incentives with collective effort that leads to shared prosperity. There was no "sometimes the other side may have a point"-ism.

With the exception of reforming politics itself, all Obama's core themes from '08 were present in his speeches this weekend: assertions that collective investment in the social safety net, education and infrastructure is a restoration of historic American values, a correction from the extreme you're-on-your-ownism of the Bush years; that commitment to capitalism is to be balanced by making the benefits broad-based; that government's role is to equalize opportunity, not outcomes; and that it's government's role to invest in the long-term (education, research, infrastructure). There were the familiar moderating caveats: that no one is seeking to denigrate or penalize success; that government can't help those who won't help themselves; that government needs to be held to strict account.

To take just one example of the gyroscopic nature of Obama's 'populism,' such as it is: the most-tweeted line from his weekend speeches (Virginia here) was "corporations aren't people...people are people."  That is semi-true: corporations are composed of people, their profits go to people -- the questions are to which people and in what proportions.  And in the full context in which the tweet-line appeared, those were the questions Obama addressed -- while asserting the legitimacy of profit and the need for corporation-driven growth:
Look, we want businesses to succeed.  We want entrepreneurs and investors rewarded when they take risks, when they create jobs and grow our economy.  But the true measure of our prosperity is more than just a running tally of every balance sheet and quarterly profit report.  I don’t care how many ways you try to explain it:  Corporations aren’t people.  People are people. 

We measure prosperity not just by our total GDP; not just by how many billionaires we produce, but by how well the typical family is doing, whether they can go as far as their dreams and hard work will take them.
And as thriving corporations, for the society as a whole, are a means not an end in themselves, their thriving depends on the effective action of the whole -- that is, on government:
We understand that in this country, people succeed when they have the chance to get a decent education and learn new skills.  (Applause.)  And, by the way, so do the businesses that hire those people or the companies that those people start. 

We know that our economy grows when we support research into medical breakthroughs and new technologies that lead to the next Internet app or life-saving drug. 

We know that our country is stronger when we can count on affordable health care and Medicare and Social Security.  (Applause.)  When we protect our kids from toxic dumping and mercury pollution.  When there are rules to make sure we aren’t taken advantage of by credit card companies or mortgage lenders or financial institutions.  (Applause.)  These rules aren’t just good for seniors, or kids, or consumers -- they're good for business.  They're good for the marketplace.  They're good for America. 
Obama doesn't demonize or denigrate corporations; he puts them in their place. And in a formulation that went straight back to 2008, he called for a balance between individual and collective effort:
We believe the free market is one of the greatest forces for progress in human history; that businesses are the engine of growth, and that risk-takers and innovators should be rewarded.  But we also believe that at its best, the free market has never been a license to take whatever you want, however you can get it.  (Applause.)  We’ve understood that alongside our entrepreneurial spirit, our rugged individualism, America only prospers when we meet our obligations to one another and to future generations.
His core pitch in '08 was to move the center back to the left after 30 years of Reagan.  He did so, with the Democratic majority, for two years, and was subject to furious backlash.  Now he is in defense mode. But he articulates the values he's defending in pretty much the same terms as in '08.
For continuity regarding Obama's Afghan policy, see Obama at Bagram: a caveat for Samuel Popkin

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