The results of this week’s midterm elections have spawned multiple analyses about why voters seem so disaffected with the Democrats and with President Obama. After rescuing the economy from global collapse, expanding healthcare to millions of Americans, securing measures to protect consumers from Wall Street excess, Democrats got hammered at the polls. Why weren’t they — and President Obama, who campaigned relentlessly for them — able to make the sale? Like any answer in politics, it’s complicated. But while there’s no single explanation, one factor may be the failure to sell the public on a progressive vision for the role of government in America that has been a mainstay of the President’s governing philosophy throughout his public service career.
In their fascinating new book, Power in Words, Mary Frances Berry (former chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and now Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania) and Josh Gottheimer (speech-writer and special assistant to President Clinton, political commentator, and visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania) have produced an insightful account of candidate Barack Obama’s mastery as an orator that also provides a useful window on his vision for America.
Focusing on 18 pivotal speeches from the campaign — from then-Illinois State Senator Barack Obama’s October 2002 speech against the Iraq war resolution to his November 2008 election night victory speech — Berry and Gottheimer put each speech in the context of Obama’s ultimate journey toward the presidency, while also revealing details about the behind-the-scenes thought and preparation that went into each.
Along the way the authors emphasize two fundamental — and ultimately interconnected — values that have motivated Obama throughout his public career and that we have seen at play during his first term as president.
The first is his abiding belief that governing is most effective when we transcend the discord and partisanship of “politics as usual” to reach a bipartisan unity of purpose and new way of approaching our nation’s challenges. The second is his fundamental belief in the power of government to help us solve problems and meet challenges that we cannot deal with on our own.
Although, as the authors note, this view of government takes its most expansive form in Obama’s “The American Promise” speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in Denver in August, 2008, you can see the roots of his thinking all the way back to the Knox College commencement address he delivered in June 2005, barely six months after being sworn in as the junior senator from Illinois:
How does America find our way in this new, global economy? What will our place in history be?
Like so much of the American story, once again, we face a choice. Once again, there are those who believe that there isn’t much we can do about this as a nation. That the best idea is to give everyone one big refund on their government — divvy it up into individual portions, hand it out, and encourage everyone to use their share to go buy their own health care, their own retirement plan, their own child care, education, and so forth.
In Washington, they call this the ‘ownership society.’ But in our past there has been another term for it — Social Darwinism, every man and woman for him or herself. It’s a tempting idea, because it doesn’t require much thought or ingenuity. It allows us to say to those whose health care or tuition may rise faster than they can afford — tough luck. It allows us to say to the Maytag workers who have lost their job — life isn’t fair. It lets us say to the child born into poverty — pull yourself up by your bootstraps. And it is especially tempting because each of us believes that we will always be the winner in life’s lottery…
But there’s a problem. It won’t work.
During the campaign Obama was able to marry these twin concepts into a coherent message of hope for the future. Once President, though, he was confronted by a quartet of challenges: (1) a Republican party that decided the path to political victory was to double down on partisanship, (2) a mobilized and well-funded Tea Party chorus preaching limited government (except when it comes to one’s own government benefits), (3) the Fox-Beck-Limbaugh echo chamber that not only preached limited government, but labeled government acting to promote the general welfare as un-American, and (4) an effective corporate lobby that was able to turn mainstream, private-sector oriented health insurance reform into government sponsored death panels.
Faced with this barrage, President Obama and his allies have not been able to sell the American people on the bedrock principle that government is a force for good in our country.
That sale can be made.
The Republican Party’s “ownership society” isn’t in sync with Americans’ fundamental values, and when Americans see it in action, they don’t like it. Indeed, the point at which the Bush presidency began to unravel was the utter failure of government in response to the Katrina disaster. As a nation we wanted government to work in helping the victims of Katrina. The collective reaction to those scenes of Americans stranded on roofs of buildings and living in filth and degradation in overcrowded shelters was profound.
We have enormous challenges in front of us and it will be important in the weeks and months ahead for the President and congressional Democrats to work with the newly-empowered Republicans in Congress on responsible solutions to these challenges. No one party has a monopoly on good ideas. But there are lines of principle to be drawn as well to ensure faithfulness to our constitutional responsibility to “promote the general welfare.” And as these lines are drawn, it will be equally important to reengage the American people in a conversation about whether they subscribe to this “you’re on your own” philosophy of government or whether they believe that there is promise in trying to build a better country together. Indeed, Americans who voted out of economic pain this fall may soon sour on elected officials who believe that government has little role to play beyond letting corporations act however they please.
As we listen to the endless punditry about the meaning of the recent midterm elections, and the pontification about where the Democrats and Obama did or did not go wrong, I hope we can pause to consider this vision of collective responsibility that candidate Obama so ably conveyed. Power in Words provides a fascinating guide to that vision. It’s well worth the read.
Power in Words: The Stories Behind Barack Obama’s Speeches, From the State House to the White House, by Mary Frances Berry and Josh Gottheimer, Beacon Press, 2010
Note: Full disclosure, People For the American Way has the distinct pleasure of having Ms. Berry serve as a member of our board and of having benefitted from Mr. Gottheimer’s pro bono assistance in our work on the federal judiciary.