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Friday, September 07, 2012  

The Two Sides of Obama's Speech

The man whose Democratic National Convention debut set a new standard for the concept of the keynote address and whose Mile High Stadium presidential acceptance speech four years later managed to be both detailed in policy and heroic in theme has, I suppose, only himself to blame if the expectations for last night's speech were daunting (himself and Bill Clinton, whom the Obama campaign wisely showcased the previous night). And at the end of last night, I was reading the whole speech through the lens of its long-building and ultimately masterful conclusion, which followed an unusually pedestrian build-up (I texted my brother at 9:47 "Boo industrial policy. Give us some Abe," and sure enough, in the stretch run, there he is).

And that part of the speech did, by my lights at least, do something important, and something Democrats are not always keen to do: it painted, in broad strokes, a picture of the philosophical differences between the parties in this election. This is in keeping with the oft-stated preference of the Romney campaign for a "referendum election" and the Obama side's framing of a "choice election." I was particularly struck by one passage, which was reiterated in other ways toward the end: "A freedom which only asks what's in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense." It's a highly polemical way to describe the partisan divide, of course, and it's not really fair. Most Republicans believe commitment to others, charity, and so on, though of course no one forced them to nominate Gordon Gekko and John Galt to serve as their standard-bearers. But all the same, it was an eloquent response to the anti-communitarian mood of the GOP convention, and a legitimate grounding of the positions Obama and his party have generally held when the budget-cutting zeal of recent years turned to Medicaid, food stamps, and early childhood education. And it's the refrain that grounded the unusually forthright defense of DREAM Act-eligible undocumented immigrants, poor children, college students who can't borrow tuition money from their parents, and gays and lesbians in the speech. Not that such applause lines don't hide their own moral lacunae--the stirring and proper defense of women's health care autonomy implicitly excludes the fetus from any community of moral concern, and the less said of the unfortunate Pakistani villagers who found themselves in the blast radius of a drone bomb the better. But taken for all in all, it was what it ought to have been: a speech that explains the moral philosophy the president wants the voters to approve and persist in.

And yet I agreed with Matt Yglesias that the speech suggested Obama's early look at the August jobs report showed a strong number. We woke up to the news that the report was, in fact, rather dismal. That put the first, more pedestrian section of the speech in a sharper, more discouraging light. He made no case for policies that would accelerate the excruciatingly slow rate of job growth we've seen over the last three years. Instead, we got some rather uninspired and uninspiring industrial policy about automobiles, manufacturing, and exporting (it was Auto Bailout Night at the convention, which is fair enough given the fantasy world in which its critics imagine a Chapter 11 bankruptcy could have been organized in early 2009, but see also Yglesias). It was, as we've since been told by pundits whose read on the workingman's yearnings is no doubt far superior to my own, aimed at the undecided white voters of the more industrial swing states. And that's fine, as far as it goes. This is an election, after all. But looking again at what was and wasn't mentioned in that workmanlike run-up to Abraham Lincoln and leaving no one behind, we see that the Democratic Party wants us to be especially solicitous of those who work in the manufacturing sector, the math-and-science teaching sector, and the clean energy sector, backed up with a general commitment to universal safety-net programs and progressive culture-war stances. Given the choice between that program and a program of special pleading for the financial services industry, the defense contracting industry, and the agricultural sector backed by a general commitment to safety-net programs for the non-disabled, non-nursing-care current elderly and conservative culture-war stances, most of the president's partisans will have little trouble deciding. But in a season of persistently high unemployment, the whole debate has taken on an air of unreality. Obama had some fun at Romney's expense by pointing out that tax cuts are the GOP's answer to every problem, and fair enough. But Democrats have been talking up job training and teacher recruitment every cycle for twenty years, too. It is as though both parties chose to re-run the 1996 campaign.

So I think it's fair to continue asking how, exactly, we're going to keep from leaving people behind if they don't happen to work in fields that we find heroic or psychologically compelling. Mail carriers have taken a beating, after all, and construction workers and so on. Retrain them, says Obama, but absent demand for labor in the wider economy it's hard to see how they'll be get absorbed. Give their prospective employers a tax cut, says Romney, but lowering the taxes on a business owner can't generate the customers she needs to maintain an added salary. Unemployment as we've experienced it since 2008 is a major human tragedy. People suffer, of course, along with their families and communities. Human capital atrophies. Civil society withers and people become depressed and even suicidal. It shrinks our politics and turns groups and regions and employment sectors against each other in the endless battle for protection and rescue. A job is more than a paycheck, as both Obama and Biden reminded us last night, but they said it against the backdrop of--what else?--automobile assembly lines. The jobs of, I don't know, dog groomers and restaurant and bar suppliers and massage therapists and data entry workers are more than paychecks, too. 

Maybe the president and his advisers think that a new push for job creation is a political non-starter. Maybe they agree with the people who say that we're not suffering from an output gap but from a structural skills mismatch. Maybe they're simply betting that industrial policy plus women's health and gay rights will be enough to best the increasingly isolated Republican coalition. And that is compatible, to be sure, with a clearer general commitment to the safety net, which in the absence of adequate demand we need more urgently than in better times. That commitment is necessary, but not sufficient to a genuine progressive politics and to a political debate that answers our ongoing crisis. 


Noah Millman is considerably harder on the speech on similar grounds:

Of course, there is one thing on the second-term agenda: a “grand bargain” to reduce the long-term structural deficit. But by making this his primary second-term agenda goal, President Obama has effectively ceded control of that agenda to the opposition party in Congress. This is one promise he emphatically can’t deliver on alone (unless he’s willing to simply let sequestration do the work), and by framing it in terms of a bargain, he’s basically telling his own party: I’m not going to make you take all the risks on this one like I did on healthcare, because this isn’t a longstanding Democratic goal like healthcare was.
There is precious little chance I will be voting for Mitt Romney this year. He’s really given me no reason to do so–and lots of reasons not to. But if I were a partisan Democrat, I would not be happy with the way President Obama framed this election last night.
I think a "grand bargain" with a promise of protecting the core commitments of the welfare state is definitely worth voting for, especially if you're of the party that wants to protect and promote the necessary role of government in society (Republicans have been generally comfortable with deficits since the Reagan years). One way or another, the long-term fiscal gap is something that will need to be broached, and this election can be understood as a contest over which demographic and ideological coalition will hold the key veto point in that process. Indeed, I think that perhaps accounts for the unusual heat over arguments that are comparatively minor in their partisanship--over the bailouts that both parties supported but neither liked; over the shape of fiscal stimulus that was demanded by all quarters in the winter of 08-09; over how to manage Medicare's transformation from an unlimited entitlement to one on a budget. 
That being said, I think Millman is right to point out that Obama has once again rather brilliantly but the classic rhetoric of American liberalism--remember, he really believes, as he is right to, that his political tradition has its roots in the founding, the New England social model, and in the Lincoln moment--in service of a fundamentally centrist program. That's fine, in my view. If the ACA survives to its implementation, the American social-safety net will be more or less complete, and the work of preserving, modernizing, and making sustainable its commitments will be the main task of the party of government (along with the accidental correlates of our partisan politics, such as ensuring access to birth control and the voting booth, marriage equality, and environmental stewardship).  
And if there is, indeed, an acceleration of growth in a second Obama term (as many observers seem to expect will happen regardless of who wins in November), this approach will probably be vindicated and the ugly interlude of 2008-2012 or 13 will be seen as a weird economic anomaly. Perhaps rightly so; I've been reading a lot of Yglesias lately and I'm pretty convinced that more could be done, fiscally or monetarily, to get that unemployment number down more quickly, but no one really knows. But the fate of the unemployed, especially the long-term unemployed, is a legitimate justice issue, and it's not one we heard a whole lot about last night.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 5:12 PM
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