Friday, November 02, 2012

Capitulate, Chait! Succumb, Drum! Obama's rhetoric is a force for change

Two of the admirers of Obama I'm most attuned to claim a tough-minded immunity to the alleged intoxications of the president's rhetoric. Jonathan Chait, in a truly moving and incisive tribute to Obama's radical pragmatism, protests at the outset, "I never felt his election would change everything about American politics or government...Nothing Obama did or said ever made me well up with tears." Kevin Drum goes him one better:
I simply never took seriously any of Obama's high-flown rhetoric—Hope and change, Yes we can! You are the solution, etc.—dismissing it as nothing more than typical campaign windiness.
To which I must respond: Gentlemen! Tune in, turn on, don't cop out. Listen to what the man has been saying these five-plus years.

Rhetoric got Obama to the Rose Garden, but he never promised us one. He never suggested that change would be magical or easy or swift.  "We are the ones we've been waiting for" was a call to action; "yes we can" was a girding for long, hard slogging; both express the credo of a community organizer.  Throughout that endless campaign and his heady first few months in office, Obama did not promise utopia. He proposed

a) to turn the battleship of state a few degrees in the right direction;
b) to reset the country on a historical course from which it had strayed, either since Bush or since Reagan: toward a renewed commitment to shared prosperity and investment in the common good; and
c) by means of that reset, to continue the country's never-to-be-finished progress toward a more perfect union; that is, echoing Martin Luther King,
d) toward fulfillment of the promises embedded in its founding documents.

Like Chait, I admire the cost control incentives and experiments packed into the Affordable Care Act. Thanks to Michael Grunwald, I, along with the New York Times editorial board, Paul Krugman, E.J. Dionne, and probably every other progressive, have a new awareness of the manifold very-likely-successful alternative energy investments spring-loaded in the 2009 stimulus -- and appreciate its transparency, freedom from corruption and balance of short-term stimulus and long-term investment. I see the proof of the auto bailout in the performance.  I note that for all the bankers' bitching and slow-walking of the rulemaking in Dodd-Frank, that megabanks' buccaneering is significantly curtailed, that fewer MBAs are going to Wall Street, and so perhaps the financialization of our economy may be going into remission. I have high hopes that the Consumer Financial Protection Board will escape regulatory capture for a generation at least.

A whole fleet of battleships is turning, and it's not happening by accident. We have, as Chait said, a president with "keen analytical mind, grasping both the possibilities and the limits of activist government." But why would Chait not acknowledge that Obama's rhetoric articulates that balance, along with many other complex realities, with singular clarity?  Obama's public speech is not a gaudy wrapping on a prosaic package. It lays out the broad goals and historical dynamics that all the tough legislative slogging serves, and it acknowledges the tension between messy process and lofty goal.

I see Obama's rhetoric as inspiring because it's infused with his pragmatism, and his pragmatism as effective because it's in service of deeply reasoned priorities and a fully worked out theory of government (albeit one modified by hitting the brick wall of bad-faith Republican obstructionism). In that theory compromise looms large, as does structuring incentives and measuring outcomes and creating conditions for true competition.  For all its alleged messianism, Obama's rhetoric generally engages process and acknowledges complexity and embraces incrementalism.  And contrary to conventional portrayal, it's often dense with policy detail.

A few examples:

Acknowledgment of process: 100th day press conference:
[I am]...humbled by the fact that the presidency is extraordinarily powerful, but we are just part of a much broader tapestry of American life and there are a lot of different power centers. And so I can't just press a button and suddenly have the bankers do exactly what I want -- (laughter) -- or -- (chuckles) -- or, you know, turn on a switch and suddenly, you know, Congress falls in line. And so, you know, what you do is to make your best arguments, listen hard to what other people have to say and coax folks in the right direction.
 Process again: press conference announcing Dec. 2010 tax compromise:
This is a big, diverse country. Not everybody agrees with us. I know that shocks people. The New York Times editorial page does not permeate across all of America. Neither does The Wall Street Journal editorial page. Most Americans, they’re just trying to figure out how to go about their lives and how can we make sure that our elected officials are looking out for us. And that means because it’s a big, diverse country and people have a lot of complicated positions, it means that in order to get stuff done, we’re going to compromise. This is why FDR, when he started Social Security, it only affected widows and orphans. You did not qualify. And yet now it is something that really helps a lot of people. When Medicare was started, it was a small program. It grew.

Under the criteria that you just set out, each of those were betrayals of some abstract ideal. This country was founded on compromise. I couldn’t go through the front door at this country’s founding. And if we were really thinking about ideal positions, we wouldn’t have a union.
 Acknowledged complexity: Nobel acceptance speech: 
I do not bring with me today a definitive solution to the problems of war.  What I do know is that meeting these challenges will require the same vision, hard work, and persistence of those men and women who acted so boldly decades ago.  And it will require us to think in new ways about the notions of just war and the imperatives of a just peace.

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth:  We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.  There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago:  "Violence never brings permanent peace.  It solves no social problem:  it merely creates new and more complicated ones."  As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence.  I know there's nothing weak -- nothing passive -- nothing na├»ve -- in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone.  I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.  For make no mistake:  Evil does exist in the world.  A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies.  Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms.  To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

Embraced incrementalism: 100th day press conference (link above):
This metaphor has been used before, but this -- the ship of state is an ocean liner; it's not a speed boat. And so the way we are constantly thinking about this issue of how to bring about the changes that the American people need is to -- is to say, if we can move this big battleship a few degrees in a different direction, we may not see all the consequences of that change a week from now or three months from now, but 10 years from now, or 20 years from now, our kids will be able to look back and say that was when we started getting serious about clean energy, that's when health care started to become more efficient and affordable, that's when we became serious about raising our standards in education.
Incrementalism again: speech upon passage of the ACA:
So this isn’t radical reform. But it is major reform. This legislation will not fix everything that ails our health care system. But it moves us decisively in the right direction. This is what change looks like.
It took many of us four years, and a good long gaze at the abyss of Mitt Romney's post-truth campaign. But a lot of progressives are starting to appreciate what change looks like.


  1. Exactlly right. Mr. Obama's soaring speeches motivate me to get off the sofa and do something important. Like you, I usually agree with Messrs. Chait and Drum and couldn't disagree more about the importance of motivating good people to action. Like you, I am not above it all--sometimes I am moved to tears by Mr. Obama's speeches. But this gets me off the sofa with a feeling that we're all in this together and good can prevail. I hope and believe that the rightward swing of the pendulum reached its apex 4 years ago and the American people will cause a more perfect union for all of us.

  2. Excellent post. Most of the people who only got the "hope" during 2008 did so only because they were listening to half of what he was saying and ignoring the pragmatism.

  3. Terrific post, yeah. I had the same response to Chait and Drum's deflation of the power of rhetoric. I'm not ashamed to admit that I have teared up listening to the President speak, or that I cried neither in ecstatic transport, nor in mystical union, nor from overpowering delight, but the same tears that a delicately profound novel or movie squeezes: tears of honest humility, of human connection, tears of fear and doubt embraced and cynicism repelled that I could not have embraced and repelled on my own. I cried during "A More Perfect Union" (at which point in the campaign I was still a Hillary supporter, and rather an Obama skeptic!) and I've cried listening to the President speak about how he lives and understands his religion. What can I say? I guess I'm just a sucker for the technically proficient weaving together of principled argument and practical commitment; direct empathy and critical distance; localized and specific contributions to a particular debate, and broader argument that locates that debate within a larger historical, political, and ethical framework. I guess I should excuse myself from rational adult conversation and go sit in the back of the room with Speaker Boehner and that girl in "A Hard Day's Night."