Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Will we hear Obama in retrospect?

Greg Sargent very sensibly notes that Obama, in his speech at Georgetown today announcing executive actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, "recast the call for climate action as the centrist, common-sense solution." Further developing that idea, he cites Chait:
As Jonathan Chait noted recently, the untold story of the Obama era is his vision of achieving liberal goals as a means for also achieving long-term economic growth:
Fashioning a long-term growth strategy is, and has always been, Obama’s deepest passion. He’s been caught up in an economic crisis and a culture war over the role of government that he wants badly to escape.
I must add that if Obama's vision of enacting liberal policies as a means for achieving long-term growth has been left untold by certain parties, those parties don't include Obama. He has never stopped telling that story: it is the very heart and soul of his pitch to America and always has been. That goes for casting those policies as "common-sense centrism," too. Throughout the 2008 campaign, tracking his speeches, I referred repeatedly to Obama's bid to move the center left. The argument has (and had) these components:

  • The only sustainable prosperity is broadly shared prosperity.
  • Repeatedly throughout American history, with a kind of punctuated rhythm, Americans have demanded -- and obtained -- new common investments that extended opportunity and prosperity to an ever-widening and more inclusive circle
  • Government investments -- in the safety net, in infrastructure, in clean energy and education -- are our collective means of fostering economic growth and creating an environment in which private enterprise can thrive to the benefit of all. Ditto for intelligent regulation -- an argument he made at length today.
  • The landmark long-term investments made in America's past have all been -- or become -- matters of bipartisan consensus.
  • The hard-right turn of the last thirty years is an historical aberration that has thrown our economy out of whack by privileging the wealthy at the expense of the middle class; Obama is here to lead the restoration, i.e. move the center left.
I mapped out this pattern in 2008. Recently, following some astonishment at the liberalism of Obama's second inaugural address, I noted five instances of its expression from the 2008 campaign. Here's one:

Raleigh, NC, June 9, 2008:
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.

We've done this because in America, our prosperity has always risen from the bottom-up. From the earliest days of our founding, it has been the hard work and ingenuity of our people that's served as the wellspring of our economic strength. That's why we built a system of free public high schools when we transitioned from a nation of farms to a nation of factories. That's why we sent my grandfather's generation to college, and declared a minimum wage for our workers, and promised to live in dignity after they retire through the creation of Social Security. That's why we've invested in the science and research that have led to new discoveries and entire new industries. And that's what this country will do again when I am President of the United States.
Liberal means to sustainable economic growth: This is not an untold story, it's an unheard story. If America ever really tunes into Obama, it will be in retrospect. He laid out the vision perhaps most comprehensively in perhaps his greatest unheard speech, the "New Foundation" speech delivered at the height of economic crisis in April 2009:
It's a foundation built upon five pillars that will grow our economy and make this new century another American century: new rules for Wall Street that will reward drive and innovation; new investments in education that will make our workforce more skilled and competitive; new investments in renewable energy and technology that will create new jobs and industries; new investments in health care that will cut costs for families and businesses; and new savings in our federal budget that will bring down the debt for future generations. That is the new foundation we must build. That must be our future – and my Administration's policies are designed to achieve that future.
Obama made this core argument more aggressively -- with a more sustained attack on the historic "don't kill the golden goose with taxation and regulation" counterargument -- at Osawatomie:
Ever since [the financial crisis], there has been a raging debate over the best way to restore growth and prosperity; balance and fairness...this isn’t just another political debate. This is the defining issue of our time. This is a make or break moment for the middle class, and all those who are fighting to get into the middle class. At stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, and secure their retirement.

Now, in the midst of this debate, there are some who seem to be suffering from a kind of collective amnesia. After all that’s happened, after the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, they want to return to the same practices that got us into this mess. In fact, they want to go back to the same policies that have stacked the deck against middle-class Americans for too many years. Their philosophy is simple: we are better off when everyone is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules.

Well, I’m here to say they are wrong. I’m here to reaffirm my deep conviction that we are greater together than we are on our own. I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, and when everyone plays by the same rules. Those aren’t Democratic or Republican values; 1% values or 99% values. They’re American values, and we have to reclaim them.

You see, this isn’t the first time America has faced this choice. At the turn of the last century, when a nation of farmers was transitioning to become the world’s industrial giant, we had to decide: would we settle for a country where most of the new railroads and factories were controlled by a few giant monopolies that kept prices high and wages low? Would we allow our citizens and even our children to work ungodly hours in conditions that were unsafe and unsanitary? Would we restrict education to the privileged few? Because some people thought massive inequality and exploitation was just the price of progress.

Theodore Roosevelt disagreed...[he] knew that the free market has never been a free license to take whatever you want from whoever you can. It only works when there are rules of the road to ensure that competition is fair, open, and honest...
Today, Obama unsurprisingly cast the imperative for climate control within this frame, extended globally, and playing for stakes that go beyond economics as we normally conceive it. The economic argument was that American business always responds to intelligent regulation needed to preserve health and quality of life; that such regulation is a spur to innovation; that regulating current emissions and incentivizing energy conservation will push the U.S. into leadership in this necessary next technological revolution; and that preserving the environment that has fostered human life for as long as the species has existed depends on getting this right.  In classic Obama fashion, he repeatedly cited bygone bipartisan consensus in environmental regulation; he marshaled a short powerful brief on the overwhelming scientific consensus that global warming is accelerating now, driven by human activity; and he averred his enthusiastic willingness to work with anyone willing to address the climate control challenge in good faith. And he affirmed his own duty and propensity to approach his job "with an eye on a longer horizon than the arc of our own political careers."

There was even a kind of future-perfect echo of the "yes we can" mantra of 2008 (my emphasis):
And someday, our children, and our children’s children, will look at us in the eye and they'll ask us, did we do all that we could when we had the chance to deal with this problem and leave them a cleaner, safer, more stable world?  And I want to be able to say, yes, we did

It was a powerful speech, but a departure only in the measures announced.

1 comment:

  1. I'm pretty sure I'll always recall Obama's presidency, at least partly, as it was annotated by the two Andrews (Sullivan & Sprung). You're like outsider versions of an earlier pair, Nicolay & Hay. Keep it up & thanks!