Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Obama, child of 2008, father to man of 2013

Harold Meyerson has helped me recognize that in noting the continuities between Obama's second inaugural and his past speeches (2008 and 2009-12), I under-emphasized what's new. Meyerson helps me see more fully the extent to which the speech represents a restoration of ideas Obama expressed in the 2008 campaign. Or rather, an attempt to reboot his implementation of those ideas -- seizing the "gift for reinvention" that he affirmed as an American quality.

It all boils down to what is meant, if anything, by "we are the ones we've been waiting for" (2008) and "my fellow citizens -- you were the change" (2012) and "You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course" (2013).  Here's Meyerson:

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change we seek,” candidate Barack Obama said in 2008. At the time, his comments came in for criticism: They were narcissistic; they were tautological; they didn’t make a whole lot of sense.

But in the aftermath of Obama’s 2012 reelection and his second inaugural address, his 2008 remarks seem less a statement of self-absorption than one of prophecy. There is an Obama majority in American politics, symbolized by Monday’s throng on the Mall, whose existence is both the consequence of profound changes to our nation’s composition and values and the cause of changes yet to come. ...

The president closed his [Second Inaugural] speech by asking his supporters to join him to help “shape the debates of our time.” The biggest mistake Obama made when he took office was to effectively disband the organization of the millions of Americans who had worked for his election — for fear, in part, that it might upset members of Congress whose votes he would need for his policies. He wants no such unilateral political disarmament now; his operatives hope to keep his 2012 campaign’s volunteer army in the field for the legislative battles ahead. Obama’s legions have proven that they can win elections, and this matters a great deal more, the president has learned, than whatever trace elements of goodwill he may win by deferring to Congress. 
Meyerson is picking up in part on what Obama himself has explicitly identified as the major shift in his approach to effecting change in his second term:  marshaling the public to lobby for those elements in his legislative program that enjoy widespread popular support. As I noted yesterday, regarding  Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention this fall:
His "you are the change" theme at the DNC was a reworking of the "we are the ones we've been waiting for" mantra of 2008 in that it was a call to fight, to resist the "lobbyists and special interests" striving to buy and steal the election and hijack economic policy in favor of top 1 percent.

That "only you" appeal represented...execution of a strategy that Obama articulated a couple of weeks after the DNC: ""you can't change Washington from the can only change it from the outside." His aim, I noted at the time, is not to naively use the bully pulpit to 'educate' the public or change public opinion, but to marshal opinion that's already on his side -- e.g., in taxing the wealthy and in universal background checks for gun sales -- to force select Republican acquiescences. 
Meyerson stresses that Obama is now seeking to tap the strength of a renewed and reaffirmed electoral coalition:
But in the aftermath of Obama’s 2012 reelection and his second inaugural address, his 2008 remarks seem less a statement of self-absorption than one of prophecy. There is an Obama majority in American politics, symbolized by Monday’s throng on the Mall, whose existence is both the consequence of profound changes to our nation’s composition and values and the cause of changes yet to come.

That majority, as the president made clear in his remarks, would not exist but for Americans’ struggles to expand our foundational belief in the equality of all men. The drive to expand equality, he said in his speech’s most historically resonant line, “is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall.” 
Beautifully put. And if the child is father to the man, and the same can be said of the younger man to the older, I think it's fair to say that Obama is now feeling the possibility of fulfilling this "dream from my father" of Jan. 5, 2008:
Look, I think it's easier to be cynical and just say, "You know what, it can't be done because Washington's designed to resist change." But in fact there have been periods of time in our history where a president inspired the American people to do better, and I think we're in one of those moments right now. I think the American people are hungry for something different and can be mobilized around big changes -- not incremental changes, not small changes.

I actually give Bill Clinton enormous credit for having balanced those budgets during those years. It did take political courage for him to do that. But we never built the majority and coalesced the American people around being able to get the other stuff done.

And, you know, so the truth is actually words do inspire. Words do help people get involved. Words do help members of Congress get into power so that they can be part of a coalition to deliver health care reform, to deliver a bold energy policy. Don't discount that power, because when the American people are determined that something is going to happen, then it happens. And if they are disaffected and cynical and fearful and told that it can't be done, then it doesn't. I'm running for president because I want to tell them, yes, we can. And that's why I think they're responding in such large numbers.
What Meyerson has helped me see about the second inaugural is that Obama's explicit, foregrounded invocation of the Declaration and proffered expansion of the circle of opportunity (to gays and immigrants) may have emboldened/enabled his expansion of the circle of concern (e.g., to climate change and gun control) and bold affirmation of broad liberal goals (genuine equality of opportunity; restoration of the middle class; determination to improve rather than shrink the safety net). Again, these themes have always been linked in Obama's rhetoric (principles of equality driving expansion of suffrage and civil rights, which has in turn helped drive investment in shared prosperity such as public education, infrastructure and a social safety net). But perhaps, in this speech, a sense of the emerging Democratic majority emboldened Obama to link these principles and historical forces more explicitly, if not more poetically, than he has in some time.

Two caveats. First, Monday's speech also included this self-imposed hubris watch (and/or expectations management):
We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and forty years, and four hundred years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.

Second: Meyerson taxes Obama with a new agenda that was given short shrift in his first term. If the citizenry is really to be the agent of the most needed change -- that is, if "you and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time – not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals" -- then Obama -- and his successors -- would do well to heed citizen Meyerson on this front:
As the president acknowledged, however, social equality is rising even as the relative economic equality that once defined American life has sharply and broadly receded. “Our country cannot succeed,” he said, “when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.” For this, Obama prescribed revamping our taxes and reforming our schools, but these are by no means sufficient to transform our nation into one that, as the president put it, “rewards the effort and determination of every single American.” The waning of the middle class is, with climate change, the most vexing item on the president’s agenda and requires far-reaching solutions beyond any he laid out. U.S. workers must regain the power they once had to bargain for their wages, but that only begins the list of economic reforms that are as difficult to achieve as they are necessary to re-create an financially vibrant nation. 
 Making headway on that core challenge will require a long game indeed.

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