Philosopher-in-chief Obama takes plunge into war of ideology

President uses DNC speech to articulate a governing creed

President Barack Obama’s speech to the Democratic convention in Charlotte was not as emotionally captivating as Bill Clinton’s, nor as stirring as the speech Obama himself delivered at the 2008 convention in Denver, but it could prove to be an important manifesto for Democrats.

Yes, large tracts of his speech were bread-and-butter appeals to the middle class on such pocketbook issues as income-tax deductions for mortgage interest payments or student loans. And there was a laundry list of transactional appeals to every demographic sub-group of the Democratic coalition: Hispanics, women, young people, gays and lesbians, and unions.

These sections of his address echoed the stump speeches he has been giving around the country, in which he portrays himself as the defender of the middle class. I’ve written at length about the almost accountant-like flavour of the pitch Obama has been making to voters on the campaign trail.

But Obama’s convention speech delivered something more – a deliberate foray into the war of ideology that Republicans have been fighting largely alone.

Middle Class First has been a theme at the Democratic National Convention. (Jae C. Hong/AP Photo)

For years now, Republicans have been conducting an intensifying purification of their party. From the presidential primaries to challenges to long-serving congressional candidates by conservative insurgents, that party has been punishing politicians who don’t fit a conservative ideological mold. That trend has led many Republicans, including Mitt Romney, to renounce past moderate positions and move increasingly to the right.

They have been able to do this in part because the conservative orthodoxy has been clearly articulated. In its simplest terms, the creed boils down to small government, deregulation, and a pledge against raising taxes. Any Republican can articulate the philosophy of individualism and freedom. (It’s the reason why Obama’s “You didn’t build that” comment landed with such a commotion. It was a clumsy effort running into a well-honed ideology.)

It has been a different story for Democrats. They are outraged when Obama is called “socialist” and shy away from the label of “liberal.” But their preferred term “progressive” is not nearly as clearly defined as Republicans’ notion of “conservative.”

Internally, Democrats hold a broad diversity of views. Bill Clinton’s speech was celebrated – but his words stood in contrast to many of the other speeches on the podium this week, which were focused on the identity politics of gender, race and sexual orientation. Clinton’s speech was in large part a pitch for Clintonism – centrist co-operation and technocratic policy-wonkery. He wasn’t promising that Obama would demolish the other side but, rather, that he would work with them.

Clinton’s liberalism was centrist and pragmatic and popular, but in his eight years in office did not articulate a clear philosophy for Democrats the way Reagan did for Republicans. The 1990’s notions of a “Third Way” muddled the issue in the context of the American two-party system: what are the Democrats for if not whatever the Republicans are against? In contrast, modern Republicans can’t stop referencing Reagan largely because he articulated the principles of conservatism.  (Ironically, as Jeb Bush has said, Reagan was a pragmatic politician who would probably not feel comfortable with the ideological zealotry of the Tea Party era.)

The result is that Republicans have learned to raise and connect every prosaic policy issue to the higher philosophical orthodoxy of conservatism, while Democrats merely trying to debate every policy proposal on its technocratic merits.

This dissonance is one reason Obama drew raucous laughter from the audiences when he tried to pull the Republican faith in tax cuts and smaller government back down to the level of a mere empirical policy option:

“All they have to offer is the same prescriptions they’ve had for the last 30 years. Have a surplus? Try a tax cut. Deficit too high — try another. Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning.”

But later in the speech, Obama plunged into confronting Republican ideology on its own terms. First he sketched out the Republican philosophy and then countered with an attempt at articulating a philosophy of his own:

“As Americans, we believe we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, rights that no man or government can take away. We insist on personal responsibility, and we celebrate individual initiative. We’re not entitled to success. We have to earn it. We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk-takers, the entrepreneurs who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system, the greatest engine of growth and prosperity that the world’s ever known.

But we also believe in something called citizenship — citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations.”

Citizenship is an interesting choice of language: it doesn’t imply charity or permissiveness (like “liberal”) or transformation into a new kind of society (like “progressive.”) It implies interconnectedness between people and with the state, as well as personal responsibility and sacrifice. The president riffed at length on this notion, attempting to use it to tie together the many disparate pieces of his policy proposals, from tax policy to regulation and social programs:

“We believe that when a CEO pays his autoworkers enough to buy the cars that they build, the whole company does better.

We believe that when a family can no longer be tricked into signing a mortgage they can’t afford, that family’s protected, but so is the value of other people’s homes and so is the entire economy.

We believe the little girl who’s offered an escape from poverty by a great teacher or a grant for college could become the next Steve Jobs or the scientist who cures cancer or the president of the United States and it is in our power to give her that chance.

We know that churches and charities can often make more of a difference than a poverty program alone. We don’t want handouts for people who refuse to help themselves, and we certainly don’t want bailouts for banks that break the rules. We don’t think the government can solve all of our problems, but we don’t think the government is the source of all of our problems  any more than our welfare recipients or corporations or unions or immigrants or gays or any other group we’re told to blame for our troubles  because America, we understand that this democracy is ours.

We, the people recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only, what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defence.”

“Hope and Change” were powerful words in 2008, in party because they didn’t hold specific content, allowing supporters to project their own meanings into what the candidate stood for. Now Obama has taken a stab at articulating a governing creed for Democrats. It’s too early to know whether Democrats can rally around “citizenship-ism.” But at the very least it’s a more positive, patriotic and palatable notion than “You didn’t build that.”




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Philosopher-in-chief Obama takes plunge into war of ideology

  1. Those placards are somewhat unsettling. First of all, why perpetuate class divisions? Second, why not put first those who need it the most, ie. poor people. If I’m living under the poverty line, am I reassured to know that this party is concerned primarily with a group of people who already have a much better life than I do? In a democracy, should anyone be considered “first”?

    • First, because they exist. Ignoring them will not help.
      Second, because the bulk of Americans (though the ratio is dropping) still fit into the “middle class”, and they are being increasingly left out in the cold from government support (unlike both the upper and lower classes).
      Third, in a democracy, I’m always considered first. As are you. Each individual is first to ourselves. That’s part of why it works as well as it does — and part of why it has the problems it does as well.

      • First, there are a lot of options between “ignoring” the middle class and putting them “first”.

        Second, the bulk of Americans neither need nor want government support. Most citizens aren’t helplessly dependent on a nanny state.

        Third, in a democracy it is true that self-interest rules the day as you suggest, which is why it leads inevitably to tyranny as Plato pointed out. However, the American Republic is not such a beast – it is designed such that self-interest is subservient to the common good, which is why, for example, soldiers are willing to die in battle to defend their country. When most of the US falls to your (and the Left’s) line of thinking – me against everyone else, with me first – the US will cease.

    • You’re absolutely right. If the goal is to help people, those “first” should be those most in need.

      On the other hand, if the goal is to win an election by pretending to want to help people, then those “first” should be those with the most votes: i.e. the middle class.

    • Everyone wants to be “middle class” and not “lower class” (fear of de-classment), but the reality in both Canada and the USA has been a gradual slide of the lower segment of the middle into a kind of “service economy” poorer class of our increasingly unequal society. “Middle class” has become an aspirational term; in real terms it covers a steadily shrinking group of people, who don’t want to see themselves in a similar situation as the lower class–although they are–and thus have trouble uniting with that class in a common struggle against inequality.

      And then there are the voting considerations of Obama discussed by others below.


  2. We believe the little girl who’s offered an escape from poverty by a great teacher or a grant for college could become the next Steve Jobs or the scientist who cures cancer or the president of the United States and it is in our power to give her that chance.”

    This is an outright lie. The Democrats are actively supporting and promoting a policy of NOT giving a chance to the littlest girls and boys and doing their utmost to make life very difficult for anybody that would object.

    How many Steve Jobs have been tossed into the dumpster, Mr. President?

    • Is that the “Screw Over the Poor” Act they’ve been pushing lately? Oh wait.. there isn’t any such bill..

      • You are getting rusty. How can he make any claim to supporting the young of either sex when he takes the most radical possible abortion stance.

    • Thwim, he’s talking about abortion, as all obsessive anti-choice folks do. They manage to relate it to every other policy position possible.

      • Actually, I think we just manage to relate it to issues that involve giving inconvenient kids (and in Steve Jobs’s case, “unwanted” kids) a chance rather than obliterating them. And we also manage to do so without dismissive name-calling, as you should learn to do.

      • Oh, Derick, don’t you know I’m Prolife because I was born this way?

    • That is true. At 1 million abortions per year in the US alone, odds are that the next Steve Jobs has already been murdered in utero. He was, after all, an “unwanted child” as pro-choice types would say, and was therefore put up for adoption after he survived the 9 months of pregnancy.

      Furthermore, even if the next Steve Jobs has been born, how is she supposed to find that great teacher or get that grant, when the Dems are adamantly opposed to school vouchers? If talented kids from poor families can’t move to better schools, they’re not going to meet that great teacher or win that scholarship. Thanks for nothing, teachers unions and the party that falls into line for them!

      • Steve Jobs was a woman?

  3. The middle class are the largest group, and this is majority rules – that is why they are first. Right, wrong – whatever.

  4. Watching both Biden and Obama on CNN I was astounded at the racist coverage. Given that CNN has always seemed to be right-wing (Republican?) even so I was surprised and revolted by the way that the camera picked up faces in the audience – most often black-skinned persons who were not particularly pretty or handsome – in fact many were the reverse.

    Quick channel changes to other coverage emphasized CNN’s not-so-subtle suggestions.

    I thought this was a particularly slimy way of subliminally suggesting that most of Obama’s supporters were African-American, a subtle racist suggestion that lurks throughout the States since Obama was first elected. While I have no numbers, wide shots suggested that probably 80% of the huge crowd was white while 80% of CNN’s crowd close-ups were negro.

    CNN should be ashamed of itself!

    • Seriously? By showing people of colour in the audience, the coverage accurately reminds those watching at home: This is the party of inclusion, the one that has your back if you’re a minority. It’s those minorities that can make or break this election, IF they get out to vote, and they’re more likely to do that if taking part in The System is modelled for them. So I say go for it, CNN! If, indeed, there was any difference.

      As for your suggestion that the “most often black-skinned persons” were not “particularly pretty or handsome,” wow. That sounds like something that could have been written about 1875.

      • I’m talking about CNN’s coverage which was distinctly different than other networks. That, I think, was CNN’s point, to indicate that the Demos were the party of inclusion – of African Americans, Hispanics and other minorities that the elite, god-fearing fundamentalist Republicans don’t want to support from their pockets. CNN is Republican, quaze.22.

        I take it you haven’t visited the US South lately. While civil rights have been accomplished under Kennedy and Johnson, it’s obvious that there is an undercurrent of 1875 whether you like it or not.

        But, have it your way if you want. There is also a film called Born Yesterday.

  5. Good on Obama. Ideas are what should be articulated and debated, and the US will be better for it if the election plays out as that kind of debate, rather than the Right articulating ideas and arguments while the Left screams accusations of racism, misogyny, fat-cat greed, and hostility to science.

    The problem for the Democrats is that if they rise to the occasion and debate the ideas rather than trying to smear people, they’re facing a ticket with Paul Ryan on it, and this is where he shines. Who will answer his arguments? Biden?? Obama can try, but can he emerge from vague appeals to brotherly love long enough to argue specific facts, like how the newly ballooning deficit can be contained without either scrapping Obamacare or drastically increasing taxes? More importantly, how would he be able to do so without accepting blame for the deficit explosion that took place while Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the Presidency, and for not addressing the issue when he had the chance?

    And there is another problem for the Democrats as well. As the first two days of the Convention made clear, a big part of their identity is a hard allegiance to abortion and more recently to gay marriage. Abortion is a losing cause if the debate rises to the level of ideas, facts, and reasoning. Their position relies on shouting people down, either for being the “wrong sex” or as being deluded members of the “right” sex. Gay marriage has good arguments on both sides, but the Left is so accustomed to smearing traditional marriage supporters as filthy bigots that I honestly doubt they’re even capable of having an honest debate about it. My attempts on these boards and elsewhere have always ended with a torrent of unreasoning hatred from the opponent.

    • Ryan is a kid in adults’ clothing. I can’t wait to see him debated on the specifics of his proposals– it will send seniors streaming into the arms of the Democrats. Also, as far as I could see, especially in the example of Zach Wahl’s speech, when it comes to gay marriage the Dems made a point of being upbeat and positive, ie. emphasizing inclusiveness rather than yelling bigot at the other side.

      • You’re missing the point. If seniors stream into the arms of the democrats, that’s fine. The point is, the US is broken, and the Democrats can’t fix it. It seems that you’re more focused on vote-getting than on the realities of the welfare state and it’s growingly apparent unsustainability.

  6. Obama knocks down one straw man after another.

  7. Obama knocks down one straw man after another.

  8. Like I said…

  9. “we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations.” 16 trillion and counting.

  10. Why bother quoting Obama; nothing he says relates to either what he actually does, or worse, what he plans on doing.

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