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One of the best parts of the speech last night was President Obama's return to a core idea: that there is a counter narrative of America as legitimate if not more so as Reaganite anti-statism and greed:

In fact, this larger notion that the only thing we can do to restore prosperity is just dismantle government, refund everybody’s money, and let everyone write their own rules, and tell everyone they’re on their own -- that’s not who we are.  That’s not the story of America.  

That is not the story of America.  It's not the only story as some would have us believe.  The "story of America" is contested and we must win that contest.

The President went on to contrast rugged individualism with a countervailing thread of American history.  He went back to Abraham Lincoln.

Yes, we are rugged individualists.  Yes, we are strong and self-reliant.  And it has been the drive and initiative of our workers and entrepreneurs that has made this economy the engine and the envy of the world.

But there’s always been another thread running throughout our history -- a belief that we’re all connected, and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation.

We all remember Abraham Lincoln as the leader who saved our Union.  Founder of the Republican Party.  But in the middle of a civil war, he was also a leader who looked to the future -- a Republican President who mobilized government to build the Transcontinental Railroad -- (applause) -- launch the National Academy of Sciences, set up the first land grant colleges.  (Applause.)  And leaders of both parties have followed the example he set.

Ask yourselves -- where would we be right now if the people who sat here before us decided not to build our highways, not to build our bridges, our dams, our airports?  What would this country be like if we had chosen not to spend money on public high schools, or research universities, or community colleges?  Millions of returning heroes, including my grandfather, had the opportunity to go to school because of the G.I. Bill.  Where would we be if they hadn’t had that chance?  (Applause.)  

How many jobs would it have cost us if past Congresses decided not to support the basic research that led to the Internet and the computer chip?  What kind of country would this be if this chamber had voted down Social Security or Medicare just because it violated some rigid idea about what government could or could not do?  (Applause.)  How many Americans would have suffered as a result?

No single individual built America on their own.  We built it together.  We have been, and always will be, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all; a nation with responsibilities to ourselves and with responsibilities to one another.  And members of Congress, it is time for us to meet our responsibilities.  (Applause.)  

Address by the President to a Joint Session of Congress

Much of that is the story, the ideas of the Democratic Party, starting with FDR and the New Deal.  Government is not the enemy; it can be and has been a force for great good in the United States.  

I first wrote about this counter narrative of Barack Obama after his nomination acceptance speech.  I revisted that post in March 2010 after the health care bill passed:

I wrote this diary originally in August 2008, the day after Barack Obama's DNC acceptance speech.  I republish it today because I think the health care bill he signed, while important in and of itself because it will help people, and because it will lessen some economic inequality in America, has even more symbolic importance in the realm of ideas, a realm dominated by Reaganite selfishness for almost 30 years.  

Wed Mar 24, 2010 at 11:03 AM CDT, The Counter-Narrative of Barack Obama: "The Promise of America"

There is a theme in the post, a high-level tracing of the rise of Reaganism and the war on the New Deal and Great Society, and the effect of the victory of those ideas on allowing the Great Class Stratification.  Ideas matter and the ideas that seem like "common sense" to most people are the ones that matter most. For a long time, anti-government ideas dominated the discourse in this nation.

A few "quick hits" from the original diary/post:

Fri Aug 29, 2008 at 07:22:10 AM PDT

As someone who at times was critical of Barack Obama during the primaries, I was very impressed with Barack Obama's speech last night, with his thinking as much as his delivery.  

Obama provided a counter narrative of America, a narrative that stands in contradistinction to that of Reagan selfishness.  


In his first inaugural address, Reagan proclaimed that "Government is not the solution; it is the problem."  


Reagan would start to overturn the core New Deal philosphy of "we're all in it together" by ridiculing community and government, and promoting "enlightened selfishness" and simplistic views of the philosphy of Adam Smith.  In short, "greed is good" even for those who do not get the immediate benefits of that greed.  It's a great philosophy for those that already have, but not so good for those who are exploited.


Obama recognizes this same philosphy in John McCain: The Tough Luck Society.

For over two decades, he's subscribed to that old, discredited Republican philosophy - give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else.

In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society, but what it really means is - you're on your own.

Out of work? Tough luck.

No health care?  The market will fix it.

Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps - even if you don't have boots. You're on your own.


[From the DNC acceptance speech]

Ours is a promise that says government cannot solve all our problems, but what it should do is that which we cannot do for ourselves - protect us from harm and provide every child a decent education; keep our water clean and our toys safe; invest in new schools and new roads and new science and technology.


That's the promise of America - the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation; the fundamental belief that I am my brother's keeper; I am my sister's keeper.

Many on the left have been disappointed by some of this President's policies and tactics over the last few years, and I have been also at times.  But the verbal statements do matter. Ideological combat is essential to good policy outcomes.  Winning the battle of ideas can lead to electoral successes that can lead to policy outcomes.  President Obama defended the idea of government in a way that people could understand, and as a part of what it means to be America.    

We will never have a better, more decent nation until we win the battle of ideas.

Data from a dial test by Priorities USA Action of 32 voters in Eric Cantor's district last night watching the President's speech provides some basis for optimism.  Those tested were "swing voters," and many had doubts about Obama and the economy going in.

Simply put, the speech was a home run, and succeeded on several important levels.

Substantively, these swing voters liked the President’s proposals. They came to the speech with deep concerns about the economic situation and came away from the speech persuaded and encouraged that Obama has good ideas for improving America’s economy.


Indeed, the section of the speech in which the President laid out the “simple arithmetic” of the choice between maintaining tax breaks and subsidies or spending on basic priorities scores particularly well. In the discussion afterward, respondents said they liked the simplicity, clarity, and realism of this section.


The speech also gave respondents a much more positive view of Barack Obama as a presidential leader.


Prior to the speech, fewer than half of the respondents felt that Obama had the better approach to jobs than the Republicans in Congress. After the speech, close to three-quarters said they trust Obama more than the Republicans on the jobs issue.


Many respondents came into the room feeling discouraged, dispirited, and disappointed, but in last night’s speech they saw the Barack Obama they had hoped they were electing in 2008. Their simple message to President Obama is: Keep it up. They saw the speech as a beginning, and they want the President to continue pressing the case for the agenda he laid out before Congress. They do not want the President’s proposals to succumb to political games on Capitol Hill, and these voters were glad to hear the President say that he would take the case for his jobs legislation directly to the American people.

Hart Research Associates: Dial Test of the President's Speech

Same here:  I want President Obama to keep it up.  And keep talking about your counter narrative of America.  It matters.

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