It occurred toward the end of the president’s speech to a joint session of Congress. President Obama was reaching the peroration of his address, the point most good public speakers seek to connect emotionally with their audience while pounding home their major themes one last time.
The president chose at this crucial point in his speech to impart his vision of the role of government in the United States:
That large-heartedness — that concern and regard for the plight of others — is not a partisan feeling. It’s not a Republican or a Democratic feeling. It, too, is part of the American character — our ability to stand in other people’s shoes; a recognition that we are all in this together, and when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand; a belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgment that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise. …
You see, our predecessors understood that government could not, and should not, solve every problem. They understood that there are instances when the gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom. But they also understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, the vulnerable can be exploited. And they knew that when any government measure, no matter how carefully crafted or beneficial, is subject to scorn; when any efforts to help people in need are attacked as un-American; when facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter — that at that point we don’t merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges. We lose something essential about ourselves.
That was true then. It remains true today. I understand how difficult this health care debate has been. I know that many in this country are deeply skeptical that government is looking out for them. I understand that the politically safe move would be to kick the can further down the road — to defer reform one more year, or one more election, or one more term.
But that is not what the moment calls for. That’s not what we came here to do. We did not come to fear the future. We came here to shape it. I still believe we can act even when it’s hard. (Applause.) I still believe — I still believe that we can act when it’s hard. I still believe we can replace acrimony with civility, and gridlock with progress. I still believe we can do great things, and that here and now we will meet history’s test.
Because that’s who we are. That is our calling. That is our character.
It is not often that a president opens his mind and allows us to see its inner workings, to view the philosophy that animates his actions and drives him to achieve a vision formed from personal experience and thoughtful contemplation.
I believe Barack Obama is indeed a thoughtful man. Not a scholar or intellectual, but someone who has an interest in living what the philosophers refer to as “an examined life.” Perhaps no modern president has spent as much time nor traveled so far in an effort to discover meaning and place as far as the threads of his life are concerned. This much was evident before he became president. Dreams from My Father was, if nothing else, a dissertation on one man’s journey of self-discovery and his drive for self-actualization.
What made that autobiography unique was not so much Obama’s age when he wrote it (33), but rather his almost melancholy realization that he really didn’t fit in anywhere and that he must create his own community in order to feel as if he belonged.
Charles Kesler of the Claremont Institute writes:
Eager to find himself by finding a community to which he could belong, he was struck, nonetheless, by the flaws or limits of every race, culture, and country he encountered. Unlike other intelligent human beings who have made the same discovery, Obama did not lower his expectations but decided that, just as he could and did choose to refashion his own identity, communities could do the same, with a little help. He spent three years as a community organizer in Chicago, but was disillusioned with the results. Eventually he found in politics, and especially in political oratory, the path he was seeking: the way to redeem the sins of an existing community by leading it to a vision of its future, better self; and to introduce himself, proudly biracial, multicultural, and progressive, as living proof that the divisions and disappointments of the past can be overcome, if never quite left behind.
If one were seeking to define Barack Obama’s political philosophy in one word, it would be “community.” There is a constant tension between the idea of community and the notion of “individual rights” in that many liberals believe that without some kind of recognition of a common good (and, by extension, the necessity of government to define it), rights for the individual are meaningless. Not surprisingly, conservatives have a different take on the matter, believing that in a “voluntary community” where individual rights thrive and are protected the common good is recognized and promoted by members acting as individuals.
In the president’s vision, America the community needs government’s guiding hand to show us the way when our individualistic notions of liberty impede what is determined to be the common good. This is not necessarily a recipe for “big” government. After all, the president is correct when he notes that a Darwinian society that featured predators preying on the weak and vulnerable would not be a very pleasant place to live and that some kind of government is essential to prevent this kind of exploitation lest it eventually destroy the very concept of individual rights.
But the president also reveals a curious disconnect between what he says he believes and the agenda he is promoting. For example, he admits that sometimes “gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom.” I find this disingenuous at best since if he presented his health care reform bill to the American people using that construct, I sincerely doubt there would be many citizens (beyond his liberal supporters) who would prefer their individual rights “constrained” to the idea of government eventually managing our health care system. The same could be said of Obama’s cap-and-trade bill, as well as some of his proposed ideas for labor law reform (EFCA).
The president tries very hard to connect his idea of “community” with the American past but it is tough sledding. He seemed to recognize his dilemma when he said last night:
One of the unique and wonderful things about America has always been our self-reliance, our rugged individualism, our fierce defense of freedom and our healthy skepticism of government. And figuring out the appropriate size and role of government has always been a source of rigorous and, yes, sometimes angry debate. That’s our history.
Can the president square any of his agenda with the statement above? If there has indeed been “angry debate” over the “appropriate size and role of government,” we know which side of that debate he comes down on and it is definitively not on the side of “self reliance,” “rugged individualism,” or a “healthy skepticism” of government. It is his highly personalized idea of “community” that trumps all of those “wonderful things about America.”
Having said that, there appears to be a genuine conflict within himself that the president has sought to resolve. Barack Obama may not be an ideologue as so many politicians are today. But neither is he a “pragmatist.” His health care reform proposals are not born out of practicality, and while he made the proper noises about being open to ideas from the opposition in his speech, it is apparent that this was but a transparent political ploy. The idea that he is going to have his Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius — a former lobbyist for the trial lawyers — investigate ideas for tort reform is laughable considering that the lawyers consider reforming malpractice law a threat to their livelihood.
Still, this conflict in the president’s mind between tradition and progress, individual and community represents the basic forces in politics, and it is interesting how Barack Obama has sought to overcome this push-pull on his beliefs by thinking he could become a “post-partisan” figure. A profile last year in the New York Times by Michael Powell reveals a man serious about finding a way out of the excessively ideological box into which American politics has shut itself:
Asked about the writers who influenced him, Mr. Obama chose John Steinbeck, William Shakespeare, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Primo Levi, Graham Greene, Toni Morrison and Doris Lessing, a morally serious grouping that spreads in many ideological directions.
He draws also on the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who crafted the concept of the ”just war” and argued for the morality, under certain circumstances, of nuclear armament.
In short, if a president could think our way out of the morass our modern politics has become, Obama was going to give it his best shot.
He failed, of course. And the reasons for his failure are not because of bad intentions or a lack of faith. Rather, it is the president’s adherence to his personal vision of a new American community that sabotaged his plans to remake America.
Powell from the same profile:
The communitarian strain in Mr. Obama’s thinking often surprises liberal supporters. Roughly put, communitarianism holds that individual rights must be circumscribed by the communal, with all the cross-generational, religious and patriotic obligations that implies. Sweeping change must be approached slowly; when government enforces individual responsibilities, a moral crisis looms.
Communitarians also hold that government and corporations are bound by obligations to citizens, like a clean environment, education and health care.
It is this vision that has gotten in the way of Mr. Obama’s “post-partisan” personae. One can immediately see that it is impossible to reconcile his admiration for our “rugged individualism” with what he sees as the needs of the community. Those who fail to recognize those needs must be coerced and “obligations” enforced. Who but government can fulfill the president’s desire to form this “more perfect” community?
To Barack Obama, government is neither big nor small. That is a specious argument to his mind. Government is as big — or as small — as it needs to be in order to ensure his idea of a social compact is realized.
To my mind, there is a touch of megalomania to Obama’s vision in the kind of community he promotes. Indeed, as Simon Critchley points out in Harper’s Magazine, the president needs this community to complete his sense of belonging:
There is something desperately lonely about Barack Obama’s universe. One gets the overwhelming sense of someone yearning for connection, for something that binds human beings together, for community and commonality, for what he repeatedly calls “the common good.” Of course, this is hardly news. We’ve known since his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that “there’s not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America—there’s the United States of America.” Obama’s remedy to the widespread disillusion with politics in the U.S. is a reaffirmation of the act of union. This is possible only insofar as we restore a sense of community to the nation. That, in turn, requires a belief in the common good. In the face of grotesque inequality, governmental sleaze, and generalized anomie, we need “to affirm our bonds with one another.” Belief in the common good is the sole basis for hope. Without belief, there is nothing to be done. Such is the avowedly improbable basis for Obama’s entire push for the presidency.
Affirming those “bonds” is to be done by forging links to each other, shackling ourselves to his idea of a community where the rights of the individual are subsumed to the state’s notion of the common good. Free speech is fine — as long as you don’t offend anyone else in the community. Same goes for freedom of worship, Second Amendment rights, and private property rights. With Obama’s idea of community, any outrage against the rights of the individual are justified in the name of communitarianism.
Needless to say, this is where we get health insurance reform that will force everyone to buy insurance even if they don’t want to. In Obama’s universe, that simply isn’t an option. We will see if the Supreme Court agrees with him.
I find much to admire in the president’s efforts to seriously examine the skein of his thinking to discover a rational and coherent political philosophy. I don’t think any president since Reagan has thought as much about man’s relationship to government in a free society and the dynamics of change that could allow him to achieve a personal political vision.
It is ironic how both men started from basically the same place and came to radically different conclusions about concepts like “community” and “individual rights.” Perhaps President Obama would agree that this too is something “wonderful” about America.