Barack Obama’s election has sent America’s political punditry a-flutter. And shockingly, they all seem in agreement. From the left, right, and center, the consensus is that we have witnessed a revolution in American politics. And yet, we also know that John McCain came fairly close to winning. Thus, would all the declarations about the death of conservatism and the rise of a new America sound silly if that very real possibility had come about? In short, has the election of Barack Obama signaled a genuinely revolutionary moment? And if so, has it brought an earlier revolution—one begun by Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980—to an end? Have we witnessed an ideological shift in America?
Not necessarily, for Americans are quite adept at playing an ideological parlor game. The literary critic R.W.B. Lewis famously referred to this trick as the ‘American Adam.’ The argument runs like this: if the Biblical figure of Adam was the only person to come into the world unburdened by sin, the United States is the only nation to come into the world unburdened by history. The Democratic Review put it succinctly in 1839: ‘Our national birth was the beginning of a new history…which separates us from the past and connects us with the future only.’ Thus, as John Judis explained in early 2008: ‘When [Obama] speaks of change, hope, and choosing the future over the past, when he pledges to end racial divisions or attacks special interests, [he] is striking chords that resonate deeply in the American psyche. He is making a promise to voters that is as old as the country itself: to wipe clean the slate of history and begin again from scratch.’ Practically speaking, American Adamism manifests itself in a periodic call to rebuke the present government and its partisanship, and remake politics in the image of the nation’s founding ideals. Obama is the latest American Adam!
Journalist Thomas Friedman captured the essence of this tradition in an editorial entitled, ‘Radical in the White House.’ Friedman wrote, ‘I hope Obama really is a closet radical. Not radical left or right, just radical, because this is a radical moment.’ Of course, something dramatic needs to be done and Friedman thinks that Obama has an opportunity similar to that of FDR, LBJ, and George W. Bush. In all of these cases, moments of crisis turned into opportunities, in the typical American vernacular, to ‘swing for the fences.’ Roosevelt and Johnson largely succeeded, Friedman thinks, in reshaping the relationship between the government and the governed. Bush had his opportunity following the tragedy of 9/11 but instead ‘left us in some very deep holes.’ As for Obama, Friedman observes ‘it is impossible to exaggerate what a radical departure it is from our past that we have inaugurated a black man as president,’ and channeling the Adamistic moment he concludes, ‘it is equally impossible to exaggerate how much our future depends on a radical departure from our present.’ Friedman’s advice: confront the immediate problems not the longstanding ideas that caused them; be radical, not ideological.
Such advice echoes the notion that America is radically centrist, rather than radically ideological. After all, the revolution that created the country toppled a king, but left slavery untouched; chose the classic liberal Locke over the budding socialist Rousseau; and looked favorably on religion to moderate the passions unleashed by popular enthusiasm for democracy. The legacy of the Founders is gloriously and frustratingly ambiguous. The statement that best evokes this ambiguity is one that not surprisingly has been claimed by politicians in every age (or republic) on the left and the right, even though it was uttered by the most radical American during the Revolutionary period, Thomas Paine. It was he who declared that ‘We have it in our power to begin the world over again.’
But surely not all worlds remade and begun anew are equal. Has Obama’s appeal to the nation’s founding principles been substantially even (dare we say it) ideologically different that the revolutionaries whom he has succeeded? George W. Bush and the father of the revolution he inherited, Ronald Reagan, appealed basically to the same principles, founders, and spirit that Obama has claimed. And while Obama’s policies will differ from theirs, does it matter that the ideas behind those policies might differ too? Or is it all an ideological sleight of hand, its left and right? Well, I think it does matter. And looking at the first inaugural addresses of Reagan and Obama explains why.
On one level, the addresses take a typical tact: in a time of crisis, presidents need to show calm, confidence, and conviction. Both presidents entered office in the midst of economic crises and foreign policy quagmires. In the face of these crises, both presidents pledged immediate action. Both men called for a national renewal to stem the crisis of confidence that pervaded the country. Both paid tribute to soldiers, fallen and still fighting, as a way to acknowledge that the United States had principles, interests, and allies worth defending. And both appealed to the higher truths of the Founding Fathers. However, here an important difference emerges. Reagan recalled a statement from Joseph Warren the president of the Massachusetts Congress who implored his fellow representatives as they deliberated the federal Constitution to remember that they had the power to ‘decide the important questions upon which rests the happiness and the liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.’ Did Reagan like this story because it illustrated both the great vision of the founders and the enormous amount of power the federal government would have over generations of Americans? Contrast that with Obama’s choice to use perhaps the bleakest moment in the Revolutionary War as a way to illustrate the character of American resolve. In the winter campaign of 1776-1777, George Washington, the commander of the seemingly over-matched Continental Army, ordered Tom Paine’s ‘The American Crisis’ read to his men. The line Obama pulled from the essay was not the traditional phrase, ‘These are times that try men’s souls,’ but rather one that is much more quietly heroic: ‘Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.’ Obama recognized that perhaps the most significant legacy of the revolution was the collective effort it took to fight it.
The way these two presidents spoke about the nation’s founding says a great deal about the character of their ideological movements. Reagan set the tone within the first minute of his address when he referred the nation as ‘these United States.’ His notion of federalism flowed from there. He chastised the federal government for piling ‘deficit upon deficit,’ for ‘growing beyond the consent of the governed,’ and for intervening and intruding in the lives of the people and the operations of the states to such an extent that he, its new chief executive, had to remind the federal government who created it in the first place. This litany of sins found expression in one of the most memorable lines of any inaugural address: ‘In this present crisis,’ Reagan intoned, ‘government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.’
Obama did not give us a line so pithy and pliable as that. Nor did he condemn the government he had just vowed to lead. Fittingly, I think, he did not refer to ‘these’ United States, rather Obama spoke about his ‘fellow citizens’ more collectively as Americans, asking them to act like adults, ‘to set aside childish things…[and] to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.’ And rather than blithely imagine that present crises–domestic and international–would be overcome by sheer hope or some invisible hand of the market, Obama went directly after the Reagan-Bush conservative ideology. ‘The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works, whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.’ And ‘as for our common defense,’ Obama made clear with George W. Bush sitting behind him, that ‘we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.’
In 1981, Reagan identified America’s problem as its federal government, over the next 28 years, his ideology presided over and had little answer for the largest deficits in American history, an enormous financial meltdown, and a war against Islamic militants. Did Reagan create success? Of course, especially when, such as with the Soviet Union, the president used the power that only the federal government has to act boldly. In 2009, Obama has identified America’s problem as the failure of leaders to act responsibly and a collective avoidance ‘to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.’ Where Reagan asked almost nothing of the American people and, it seems, even less of the federal government, Obama counsels that ‘what is required now is a new era of responsibility–a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining our character than giving our all to a difficult task.’
Obama gets a good deal of praise for being ‘pragmatic,’ for his willingness to work across party lines, which in turn means that he’s not ideological. However, I think Americans often miss the ideological verve of their nation’s origins. While it might have been pragmatic for the founders to leave slavery alone, it was certainly ideological to declare that all men are created equal. Moreover, the strong individualism of classical liberalism apparent in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence did not cancel out the equally sincere civic republicanism that brought the founders together in the first place. In short, the American founders were radical for their moment in history, what does it mean to be radical in ours?
We have before us two ideologies: The first asked very little of anyone other than to blame the federal government for their personal and collective problems and to be proud that they were born in America. The other is an ideology that asks citizens to act like responsible adults in a country that is only as great as the people and their political system make it. Should we make our world over again in the image of 18th century or the 21st? This is the decision Obama has placed before us.