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Monday, January 21, 2013  

The Never-Ending Journey

As a politician made, in nearly Bryan-esque degree, by a speech, Barack Obama has been a victim of his own success.  It's a funny thing--that 2004 speech, which in fairness was beautifully delivered and contained some perfect passages (remember "We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states"?), is in retrospect a good deal more pedestrian than I am guessing most pundits remember. Seriously, read the transcript. It may go down as the most consequential speech in American political history to hang on the thesis that "a slight change in priorities" would accomplish the nation's great and necessary goals. 

But then he was new and shocking, and no one did what he did as well as he did it. I watched that speech with a dozen ecstatic friends. I got a call from Cairo that night. Indeed it's still true that no one does that sort of speech as well as Obama does--except, that is, the Obama of the collective memory of the pundit class. The Obama of each succeeding speech is compared with an original that doesn't really exist. So it happens that today's speech is compared favorably, in many backhanded compliments, to the dreary and modest first inaugural in 2009. Not trusting my own memories of it, I went back and read the transcript tonight. It's a lot better than people seem to remember, and I'd even say it compares favorably to some of the "Fired up, ready to go!" campaign-season classics. 

Likewise today's speech was tasted by a commentarial palate sated on Obama's peculiar skills and preoccupations. It was, I am reliably told, more "liberal" than his other efforts, though again I wonder how exactly that is meant. What I think people missed is Obama's theory of American history and his attempt to compress a substantive argument about government into the format of an inaugural address. 

My first thought on hearing the speech was that it represented Obama's "Waste Land" period. Has any president returned so obsessively to the touchstones of American experience? The self-evident truths were a theme back in that 2004 speech. Yet the story he spins is never one of return to a better past; it's always of an uncertain present and an unwritten future. The founders didn't set ideal institutions for all times and places, they set out on a "never-ending journey," which we continue by a kind of congruence with their values. The truths are self-evident, but "they have never been self-executing," he pointed out in one of the speech's key moments. Keeping faith with the American "creed" (one of Obama's favorite words) is a matter of being willing to learn how to apply those old principles in new circumstances. And so he stitches together Lincoln ("blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword"), Teddy Roosevelt ("rules to ensure competition and fair play"), and FDR ("care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune"); along with the outside pressure movements that have pushed, pulled, and prompted those leaders and others to act in accordance with the deep logic of the nation's founding principles. I suspect the moment that will be remembered from this speech is the tribute to "the the most evident of truths - that all of us are created equal" as "the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall."

The name-check of Stonewall got the most attention, but take one step back and consider the context. Obama is claiming the custody of America's civic religion for his Democratic Party. And he is, in virtually the same breath, insisting that progress is not ordained by the passage of time or the flow of history, that it comes in partial and imperfect victories and that it is always left to be continued by other hands.

Both admirers and detractors have tended to miss this guardedness, this rueful tone in Obama's rhetoric. It is by now quite obvious that he understands that nothing is settled for all time; that while universal health care or a non-violent resolution to the Iran standoff may be secured for our time, ironies will always abound and new perplexities will always arise, 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."

The power of this double move is to at once write the stories of the marginalized, in symbols most assuredly not recognized by all, into the canon of the American experience and declare that canon perpetually open. Very few recognized it at the time, but literary modernism saved literary traditionalism from the dustbin.

The second remarkable thing about this speech was the relative detail with which he refuted the arguments of his opponents. The paragraph on the safety net is the best example of this:

We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future. For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty, and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn. We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other - through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security - these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.

Matt Yglesias gets this right. There is a direct and clear rejoinder to the generational struggle implicit in the Paul Ryan budget proposal, wedded to a case for basic economic security that is both abstractly moral and concretely practical. Bad fortune is sorted without respect to desert, so we insure against it collectively. This insurance has the beneficial effect of allowing people to take risks they wouldn't take if ruin were part of the downside risk. 

Now a graf is only a graf, and no massing of grafs would win a political fight. But the respect for the audience implicit in these moments is rare in a politician of any stature. You, America, can get your mind around truths that are self-evident but not self-executing. You can handle the irony of uneven and unreliable progress. You won't get angry at hearing big words.

It's unlikely that the next president, whatever his or her party, will attempt anything like this. People are understandably a little fatigued at the Obama style. Even I am, at this point; it courts decadence to dwell so determinedly in the examples of the past and to praise the nation so constantly in such unqualified terms. But it is very probable that friend and foe alike will end up missing this, at least a little bit. 

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 11:25 PM
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