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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