"The President as a candidate was never a lefty. He actually ran to the right of Hillary Clinton."
This was a comment I read today. It's an argument I've seen made many times before. And it's patently false.
The president not only ran as a lefty, but he ran as an exceptional lefty. He was the first Democratic candidate to truly define the core principles of both the traditional Democratic party and liberalism/progressivism in general since John Kennedy.
Read this excerpt from Obama's keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention closely. It's one of the most inspiring things an American politician has said in my lifetime. It still gives me goosebumps and makes me choke up to read it. Seriously.
And he knows that it’s not enough for just some of us to prosper -- for alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga, a belief that we’re all connected as one people. If there is a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there is a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for their prescription drugs, and having to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandparent. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties.
It is that fundamental belief -- It is that fundamental belief: I am my brother’s keeper. I am my sister’s keeper that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams and yet still come together as one American family.
E pluribus unum: "Out of many, one."
He repeated this theme throughout his campaign. Now, what do you think he was saying here? This isn't just the expression of sentiment towards old people and poor children. This is the essential refutation of conservatism, in all its Randian glory. This is an affirmation of what it actually means to be a liberal, FDR Democrat.
'We are all in this together.'
I can assure you, while this may sound like pleasant rhetoric to progressives, to the neoliberal establishment, these are fighting words.
The Right has spent 60 years trying to destroy the idea that government can be used as a force for good, a force for economic justice, equality, and common welfare. And for them, to have a politician, a member of the US Senate, get on national television advocating the use of government as an instrument with which to pursue such public good, such common purpose was bound to be interpreted as a frontal attack. No wonder they think he's a secret socialist.
What was it he told Joe the Plumber? We have to "spread the wealth around a little bit"?
Commiespeak. But hey, talk is cheap right? Politicians say things to get elected right? But Obama didn't just talk. He actually had a specific plan to socialize medicine. It was called the public option. And had it gone into effect, it would have been a pretty dramatic, institutionalized expression of that 'we're all in this together' idea Obama was pushing throughout his campaign.
It's true. Obama ran as a Unity 08 ticket all built in to one. (Remember Unity 08? The push for a bi-partisan ticket with the Law and Order guy on TV?)
But don't tell me he didn't run as a liberal/progressive. As George Lakoff noted in "The Obama Code", he ran as a True Progressive:
Obama has consistently maintained that what I, in my writings, have called "progressive" values are fundamental American values. From his perspective, he is not a progressive; he is just an American. That is a crucial intellectual move.
Those empathy-based [my brother's keeper] moral values are the opposite of the conservative focus on individual responsibility without social responsibility.
Empathy-based values are opposed to the pure self-interest of a laissez-faire "free market," which assumes that greed is good and that seeking self-interest will magically maximize everyone's interests.
How are such values expressed? Take a look at the inaugural speech. Empathy: "the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job, the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child..." Responsibility to ourselves and others: "We have duties to ourselves, the nation, and the world." The ethic of excellence: "there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of character, than giving our all to a difficult task." They define our democracy: "This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed."
Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country. Not since Kennedy.
I will not address the degree to which Obama has or has not fulfilled the promise of this message. But I will point out here that since the president took office, he has not to my knowledge uttered once the sentiment expressed in the cited passage of his 2004 inauguration speech, and repeated throughout the 2008 campaign, until two weeks ago during his post re-election campaign kickoff speech on the budget where he said this:
But there has always been another thread running throughout our history – a belief that we are all connected; and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation. We believe, in the words of our first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, that through government, we should do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves.
That Obama would suddenly resurrect this theme only days after the launch of his re-election campaign was seen as a positive sign by many, including some who have been highly critical of the president in the past. I believe, in the context of his presidency, it should be taken with a great degree of skepticism.
But putting that aside for now, I think it's important to remember that Obama ran a very complex, calculated campaign that had many "code" phrases, to use Lakoff's term, that appealed to many positions along the ideological spectrum. He also said he was a big "free market guy" at one point, for example.
But all through it, even as he tacked right after the primary, and even after he selected truly Randian (in the Alan Greenspan tradition) disciples to run his economic team, I held on to those words he uttered that night in 2004, when he would deliver the only inspiring speech of the entire Kerry campaign. That is, until I didn't.