Obama Returns to his Moral Vision: Democrats Read Carefully!
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Last week, on April 13, 2011, President Obama gave all Democrats and all progressives a remarkable gift. Most of them barely noticed. They looked at the President’s speech as if it were only about budgetary details. But the speech went well beyond the budget. It went to the heart of progressive thought and the nature of American democracy, and it gave all progressives a model of how to think and talk about every issue.
It was a landmark speech. It should be watched and read carefully and repeatedly by every progressive who cares about our country -- whether Democratic office-holder, staffer, writer, or campaign worker -- and every progressive blogger, activist and concerned citizen. The speech is a work of art.
The policy topic happened to be the budget, but he called it “The Country We Believe In” for a reason. The real topic was how the progressive moral system defines the democratic ideals America was founded on, and how those ideals apply to specific issues. Obama’s moral vision, which he applied to the budget, is more general: it applies to every issue. And it can be applied everywhere by everyone who shares that moral vision of American democracy.
Discussion in the media has centered on economics -- on the President’s budget policy compared with the Republican budget put forth by Paul Ryan. But, as Robert Reich immediately pointed out, “Ten or twelve-year budgets are baloney. It’s hard enough to forecast budgets a year or two into the future.” The real economic issues are economic recovery and the distribution of wealth. As I have observed , the Republican focus on the deficit is really a strategy for weakening government and turning the country conservative in every respect. The real issue is existential: what is America at heart and what is America to be.
In 2008, candidate Obama laid out these moral principles as well as anyone ever has, and roused the nation in support. As President, as he focused on pragmatics and policy, he let moral leadership lapse, leaving the field of morality to radical conservatives, who exploited their opposite moral views effectively enough to take over the House and many state offices. For example, they effectively attacked the President’s health care plan on two ideas taken from the right-wing version of morality: freedom (“government takeover”) and life (“death panels”). The attacks were successful even though Americans preferred the President’s health care policies (no preconditions, universal affordable coverage). The lesson: morality at the general level beats out policy at the particular level. The reason: voters identify themselves as moral beings not policy wonks.
All politics is moral. Political leaders put forth proposals on the assumption that their proposals are the right things to do, not the wrong things to do. But progressives and radical conservatives have very different ideas of right and wrong.
With his April 13, 2011 speech, the President is back with the basic, straightforward idea of right and wrong that he correctly attributes to the founding of the country -- as UCLA historian Lynn Hunt has observed in her important book Inventing Human Rights.
The basic idea is this: Democracy is based on empathy, that is, on citizens caring about each other and acting on that care, taking responsibility not just for themselves but for their families, communities, and their nation. The role of government is to carry out this principle in two ways: protection and empowerment.
Obama quotes Lincoln: “to do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves.” That is what he calls patriotism. He spotlights “the American belief … that each one of us deserves some basic measure of security… that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, hard time or bad luck, crippling illness or a layoff, may strike any one of us.” He cites the religious version of this moral vision: “There but for the grace of God go I.” The greatness of America comes from carrying out such moral commitments as Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid.