Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Coming today: An Obama message "for" Hillary?

Obama just sent an email  to supporters announcing a speech to be delivered this afternoon. I imagine it will be a message "for" Clinton -- both to support her and to model a coherent pitch for incremental change. There are hints in the letter, highlighted below.
Nine years ago today, I stood on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, to announce my candidacy for President of the United States.

I asked you to join me in taking up the unfinished business of perfecting our union -- to work together to build a better future.

Along the way, Americans like you have done that by playing the most important role in our democracy -- the role of citizen. You've taken on the painstaking work of progress. You've helped us find that middle ground where real change is won -- change like rescuing our economy from the brink of another Great Depression, protecting our planet, and helping millions of Americans gain health insurance.

I'll be the first to admit that this journey hasn't always been easy, especially when our politics can seem so small. But I'm still hopeful that our politics can reflect the basic decency of the American people.

That's why I'm going back to Springfield today -- because fixing our broken politics cannot wait. And I still believe we can do it together.

I hope you'll tune in today at 2:30 p.m. Eastern.President Barack Obama
Re "perfecting our union": that is Obama's permanent historic framework for the change he seeks. The language, of course, comes from the Constitution's aspiration to "form a more perfect union." The trope is that the U.S. has made continual but uneven progress in fulfilling the promise of its founding documents, periodically expanding the circle of those to whom full rights and privileges are granted, and periodically renewing its investment in shared prosperity.  Ever more perfect means never perfected. It's a flexible frame that allows for periods of regression or stagnation -- as, for example, in the rise of inequality and political polarization over the past 30-40 years -- while also expressing faith in the nation's perpetual capacity to self-correct.

Then there's "the painstaking work of progress" and the 'middle ground where real change is won." Those are memes pointed at this moment, in which the frontrunners in both parties are calling for radical, fundamental change (one promising transparently fraudulent personal magic, the other sketching a reorientation that's plausible in theory but with little idea how to get there). Incrementalism is a tough sell, but Obama has made it throughout his career, and he does so more effectively than Clinton.   He's more successful because he's better at articulating the long-term goal and how the incremental steps move toward them, as well as the historical framework in which those steps fit.

UPDATE: My premise was wrong: this speech was a call for political reform to reduce hyperpartisanship and a plea to restore civility in our politics. The historical frame mentioned above was there: a faith that the country can self-correct as things get periodically out of whack:
My point is not that politicians are worse, it's not that issues are tougher, and so it's important for us to understand that the situation we find ourselves in today is not somehow unique or hopeless. We've always gone through periods when our democracy seems stuck, and when that happens we have to find a new way of doing business. We're in one of those moments. We've got to build a better politics, One that's less of a spectacle and more of a battle of that understands the success of the American experiment rests on our willingness to engage all our citizens in this work. 
But there was also a warning: "I understand as an American citizen, our progress is not inevitable -- it must be fought for and won."  And he suggested that if standards of decency and basic regard for fact erode, ordinary citizens become disengaged and impassioned extremists fill the vacuum.

So no, this speech was not about defining progressivism; it was about restoring conditions under which government could function, in which compromise and mutual respect among political rivals is possible.   But the progressive faith that we could find our way to a more functional politics underlay the pitch.

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