I've written several diaries over the years portraying President Obama as trying to change the narrative of America, changing the mainstream stories we tell ourselves about ourselves in an effort to define who we (collectively and individually) are.
Each post has the same basic theme. I wrote the 2010 post on the passing of Obamacare and the third after a speech by Barack Obama in September 2011 that argued for a progressive vision of America:
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.President Obama's Counter Narrative of America Revisited (quoting Barack Obama)
The story of America is the theme. What is that story? Who are we as a people? Each epoch and generation recreates their own story of Ameirca. We see our history in new and different ways, ways that fit the now and our hopes for the future.
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.With that as a long prologue, I want to highlight articles by E.J. Dionne and Greg Sargent that focus on Barack Obama as changing the trajectory of this nation through a new narrative, just as Ronald Reagan did in 1980 (Reagan did for the bad in my view, but he did change the narrative and the inequality we have today is partly a result of that change). Both articles forcus on the Second Innaugural Address.
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 [his acceptance speech at the DNC in August 2008], 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.
To understand how Barack Obama sees himself and his presidency, don’t look to Franklin Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln. Obama’s role model is Ronald Reagan — just as Obama told us before he was first elected.
Like Reagan, Obama hopes to usher in a long-term electoral realignment — in Obama’s case toward the moderate left, thereby reversing the 40th president’s political legacy. The Reagan metaphor helps explain the tone of Obama’s inaugural address, built not on a contrived call to an impossible bipartisanship but on a philosophical argument for a progressive vision of the country rooted in our history.
“I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not,” Obama said [in 2008].
Reagan forced Democrats to realize they wouldn’t keep winning simply by invoking FDR’s legacy. Paradoxically, in following Reagan’s political lead, Obama is setting out to prove that the Reagan era is finally over.
Little by little, it’s sinking in that Obama’s inaugural speech has the potential to be a turning point in American history, one akin to Ronald Reagan’s inaugural address in 1981, in which he declared: “Government is not the solution to our problem; it is the problem.”Greg Sargent
Obama’s speech was every bit as ambitious, recasting progressivism in the eyes of the nation, declaring that the country has opted for a fundamentally new philosophical and ideological course.
The key to Obama’s argument, as Ed Kilgore points out, is that he made the “long lost liberal case that collective action is necessary to the achievement of individual freedom, instead of implicitly conceding that social goals and individual interests are inherently at war.” Indeed, Obama himself put it this way: “Preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”
There are plenty of reasons to doubt that Obama will get key elements of his second term program through. But a president’s legacy can outlast his legislative accomplishments, and if he succeeds at rehabilitating the big idea binding together his proposals — that collective action via the federal government isn’t fundamentally at odds with American values and identity, but rather is an integral part of the country’s tradition — it could go a long way towards reversing one of the great triumphs of conservative messaging over the last few decades.
Specific policies matter, but in the long run, the change in our self-identity from Reagan selfishness to a more cooperative ethos that understands the government can be used for the good of us all may be the most important legacy of Barack Obama. A new story of America. Stories persuade better than arguments and for the Obama majority, this story fits.
The Obama majority of voters will grow and create new and better policies as time goes on. Boehner speaks of Obama trying to "annihilate" the Republican Party. The Republicans are self-marginalizing at this point, a regional party lost in dead ideas and many forms of bigotry and hate. Their ethos is negative. There's no hope, just hate. That party may face a time of darkness similar to what it faced from 1933 until 1981. But we must make it happen.
I would be remiss if I did not point you to a book by Ian Reifowitz that addresses somewhat similar themes in a much more rigorous way: Obama's America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity by Ian Reifowitz. Ian, who is a professor and a kossak, looks to Obama's narrative of one American people and how Obama makes the struggles for expansions of equality and democracy over our history into the central narrative of our history. The American story is enslaved Africans becoming free, woman getting the vote, gays struggling for equality, the struggles of latinos for equality, etc.
An America that transcends whiteness is one where no citizen feels less American than any other because of skin color, and those of every background recognize everyone with whom they share this land as fellow members of the American community. That is what it means to be one people, one nation. Such a development can only occur if we cultivate a strongly inclusive, integrative, and unifying sense of national identity. We must ensure that non-white Americans are able to see themselves as full members of the American community. We must cultivate a strong national unity that brings together Americans of every background. To be clear, this alone will not solve all our problems. It will not directly educate a single child, provide jobs to the unemployed, or ensure justice for those denied it. Nevertheless, strengthening national unity will enhance our ability to accomplish those other all-important goals. Fortunately, we have a President who not only understands this, but who has made cultivating a truly inclusive American identity one of his highest priorities for two decades.We heard that in the Second Innaugural Address:
We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.This also is the former counter-narrative by Barack Obama about America. It is becoming the Story of America. And that story is changing the trajectory of our nation.