Thursday, September 06, 2012

Obama maintains hope, but not in comity

Much of Obama's speech was the same as always: I ran because the American Dream, the "basic bargain," is slipping away; we need to renew our commitment to shared prosperity, opportunity for all; to build sustainable broad-based prosperity by investing in green energy, education, infrastructure; to secure our budgetary future by controlling healthcare costs without denying care. And of course, the other side is about trickle-down, the failed policies of the Bush years, the toxic post-Reagan conviction that government is the problem.

What struck me as different was a subtle bid to tie his opponents to the wholesale corruption of our politics threatened by the unleashing of the Super PACs and the 501(c)(4)s post-Citizens United and Democrats have always suggested that Republican policies serve the wealthy.  Obama cast Romney and co. as pretty much owned and bound.

It began at the beginning, with a suggestion of corrupted process that's encompassed him too:

I know that campaigns can seem small, and even silly. Trivial things become big distractions. Serious issues become sound bites. And the truth gets buried under an avalanche of money and advertising. If you’re sick of hearing me approve this message, believe me – so am I. 
It moved on to a portrayal of the GOP agenda as a corrupt self-parody.  Following Bill Clinton's point-by-point demolition of the Romney/Ryan tax and spending plans, Obama didn't deign to follow suit in detail. He dismissed the whole package as Seth Myers dispatched Donald Trump -- as a joke:
Now, our friends at the Republican convention were more than happy to talk about everything they think is wrong with America, but they didn’t have much to say about how they’d make it right. They want your vote, but they don’t want you to know their plan. And that’s because all they have to offer is the same prescription they’ve had for the last thirty years: 

“Have a surplus? Try a tax cut.”
“Deficit too high? Try another.” 

“Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning!”

Now, I’ve cut taxes for those who need it – middle-class families and small businesses. But I don’t believe that another round of tax breaks for millionaires will bring good jobs to our shores, or pay down our deficit. I don’t believe that firing teachers or kicking students off financial aid will grow the economy, or help us compete with the scientists and engineers coming out of China. After all that we’ve been through, I don’t believe that rolling back regulations on Wall Street will help the small businesswoman expand, or the laid-off construction worker keep his home. We’ve been there, we’ve tried that, and we’re not going back. We’re moving forward.
The contrast continued in that vein, as if the Republican agenda is beneath contempt. A subtext was that Romney proposed to shower largess beyond what the privileged beneficiaries asked for or wanted -- the military as well as the wealthy -- at the expense of the public interest and beleaguered ordinary citizens:
Now, I’m still eager to reach an agreement based on the principles of my bipartisan debt commission. No party has a monopoly on wisdom. No democracy works without compromise. But when Governor Romney and his allies in Congress tell us we can somehow lower our deficit by spending trillions more on new tax breaks for the wealthy – well, you do the math. I refuse to go along with that. And as long as I’m President, I never will. 

I refuse to ask middle class families to give up their deductions for owning a home or raising their kids just to pay for another millionaire’s tax cut. I refuse to ask students to pay more for college; or kick children out of Head Start programs, or eliminate health insurance for millions of Americans who are poor, elderly, or disabled – all so those with the most can pay less. 

And I will never turn Medicare into a voucher. No American should ever have to spend their golden years at the mercy of insurance companies. They should retire with the care and dignity they have earned. Yes, we will reform and strengthen Medicare for the long haul, but we’ll do it by reducing the cost of health care – not by asking seniors to pay thousands of dollars more. And we will keep the promise of Social Security by taking the responsible steps to strengthen it – not by turning it over to Wall Street.
Obama's ending trope -- that he drew hope from  "you the people," rather than vice versa, that the litany of achievements he recited was the work of "you," not him -- was a variation on this theme -- or rather, its completion.  He set the good faith and resilience of the people against the corruption of the political process. He cast it as our choice to continue to invest in the common good by investing in...him:
If you turn away now – if you buy into the cynicism that the change we fought for isn’t possible…well, change will not happen. If you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference, then other voices will fill the void: lobbyists and special interests; the people with the $10 million checks who are trying to buy this election and those who are making it harder for you to vote; Washington politicians who want to decide who you can marry, or control health care choices that women should make for themselves.

Only you can make sure that doesn’t happen. Only you have the power to move us forward.
Finally, Clinton-style, he located his 'hope' in the stories of a few resilient individuals, focusing on the comeback of a soldier who lost his leg in combat as his primary stand-in for the nation.  And with that, once more, he framed a choice between a government for sale and a government of, for and by the people:
I don’t know what party these men and women belong to. I don’t know if they’ll vote for me. But I know that their spirit defines us. They remind me, in the words of Scripture, that ours is a “future filled with hope.” 

And if you share that faith with me – if you share that hope with me – I ask you tonight for your vote.
If you reject the notion that this nation’s promise is reserved for the few, your voice must be heard in this election. 

If you reject the notion that our government is forever beholden to the highest bidder, you need to stand up in this election. 

If you believe that new plants and factories can dot our landscape; that new energy can power our future; that new schools can provide ladders of opportunity to this nation of dreamers; if you believe in a country where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules, then I need you to vote this November. 

America, I never said this journey would be easy, and I won’t promise that now. Yes, our path is harder – but it leads to a better place. Yes our road is longer – but we travel it together. We don’t turn back. We leave no one behind. We pull each other up. We draw strength from our victories, and we learn from our mistakes, but we keep our eyes fixed on that distant horizon, knowing that Providence is with us, and that we are surely blessed to be citizens of the greatest nation on Earth.
None of this, in truth, was entirely new. In 2007-08 too, Obama contrasted his commitment to shared prosperity against the view that showering more benefits on the rich would generate growth and opportunity.  But the edge was new. There was only the slightest hint "that the other side may sometimes have a point," that there was a good-faith opposition with which to compromise.  He cast his opponents essentially as frauds and shills. That's what he's learned. He sees himself in a long twilight struggle, I think, with a foe whose fever is far from broken.

Update, 9/7: Jonathan Chait is on the same page:
During his first campaign, Obama saw the blend of individual and communal responsibility as the obvious, shared belief of the entire country. Now he has come to see it as the belief of an embattled half of America.

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