U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The President’s Tie

In the 2011 State of the Union address, Barack Obama wore bi-partisanship around his neck–his tie was neither red nor blue but some color blend of the two. His veep, Joe Biden, seemed to have on a tie of blue with red stripes, perhaps worn in solidarity with the president. In the aftermath of the tragic shootings in Arizona, people expect at least a nod in the direction of civility, a notion, as intellectual historian James Kloppenberg made clear in his recent book on Obama and in his keynote address to the 2010 USIH conference, that the president has trafficked in for a long time. So in this purplish haze, did Obama offer a way for us to channel our “e pluribus unum”?

Yes, as long as we are on board with the president–preferably riding in a high-speed train between two cities that run on “clean energy.” As Kloppenberg makes clear in his analysis of Obama, the president enjoys a good debate, but does not see compromise as the ultimate goal of democratic deliberations. He does not hesitate to state, as he did in the State of the Union, that we should do something because “it is the right thing to do.” It was the right thing to do to pass a comprehensive healthcare bill. It was the right thing to do to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It was the right thing to do to initiate Race to the Top. He also included a list of things that were not so much wrong, but ultimately not right, such as, extending tax cuts for the nation’s wealthy; targeting illegal immigrants and their children (especially when they are in college or the military); and, giving in to Tea Party demands to close down half the federal government.
As many commentators note, this Obama speech was heavy on policy ideas and bit lighter on soaring rhetoric. There were still moments, though, that illustrated Obama’s command of the rhetorical presidency–he had a “I’m not a socialist” moment near the end of the speech when he declared to a rousing standing ovation that no one in the House chamber would want to be in any country other than the United States. Fair enough, Obama made it clear he has no intention of turning Swedish. But such assurances had little effect on the Michelle Bachmann projects around the country and their constant state of seemingly satisfying paranoia. I say satisfying because never has paranoia been meted out with the kind of smiles worn by the Minnesota representative and Alaska’s (least?) favorite daughter.
But what of Obama’s plan to re-imagine the American dream as a high-tech, highly-educated future? With references to another imagined landscape, the Kennedy years of Camelot, Obama suggested that Americans realized their potential as dreamers when they looked beyond the end of their noses–toward the moon, or, at least, at some other superpower.
This blog has engaged in some excellent discussion on two issues that seem fundamental to Obama’s vision–the power of a free market mentality and the promise of American education. I would like to hear from my fellow bloggers on what they saw in Obama’s vision. Did Obama err on the side of the market or did he propose a plan to harness (regulate) the market for the interests of the nation? Is Obama a neo-liberal warlord, or the pragmatist of Kloppenberg’s analysis? And finally, did Obama offer a revision of the American dream? Consider two statements to contrast, the first from George W. Bush’s last State of the Union in January 2008 and the second from Obama last night.

“In the work ahead, we must be guided by the philosophy that made our Nation great. As Americans, we believe in the power of individuals to determine their destiny and shape the course of history. We believe that the most reliable guide for our country is the collective wisdom of ordinary citizens. And so in all we do, we must trust in the ability of free peoples to make wise decisions and empower them to improve their lives for their futures.

To build a prosperous future, we must trust people with their own money and empower them to grow our economy.” George W. Bush, 2008 State of the Union

“We should have no illusions about the work ahead of us. Reforming our schools, changing the way we use energy, reducing our deficit –- none of this will be easy. All of it will take time. And it will be harder because we will argue about everything. The costs. The details. The letter of every law.

Of course, some countries don’t have this problem. If the central government wants a railroad, they build a railroad, no matter how many homes get bulldozed. If they don’t want a bad story in the newspaper, it doesn’t get written.

And yet, as contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth.

We may have differences in policy, but we all believe in the rights enshrined in our Constitution. We may have different opinions, but we believe in the same promise that says this is a place where you can make it if you try. We may have different backgrounds, but we believe in the same dream that says this is a country where anything is possible. No matter who you are. No matter where you come from.

That dream is why I can stand here before you tonight. That dream is why a working-class kid from Scranton can sit behind me. That dream is why someone who began by sweeping the floors of his father’s Cincinnati bar can preside as Speaker of the House in the greatest nation on Earth.” Barack Obama, 2011 State of the Union

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ray,

    I’m still sorting through my responses to the State of the Union Address, but I’ll hazard a few early thoughts.

    If we can take Obama at his word—always a dangerous thing to do with politicians—he does not fit cleanly or easily into either the category of “neoliberal warlord” or “pragmatist.”

    Pragmatists are not prone to overarching visions of what America should or should not be. Obama seems too interested in American history—and what it is about (identity)—to be a presentist pragmatist. Perhaps Obama’s concern for identity and categorical imperatives (i.e. our duty) are chinks in Kloppenberg’s analysis? Then again, the faith in science and progress evident in Obama’s proposed targets for education spending may be evidence of pragmatist thinking.

    As for neoliberalism, Obama does seem interested in regulating markets (closing loopholes is no easy thing) and running an efficient, helpful government (a hallmark of progressive thinking, if not statist socialism). Progressives also seem, historically at least, to view wise spending as investment.

    Maybe pragmatism and some neoliberalism come together in Obama’s oft-stated faith America’s ability to innovate—especially in the private sector? Faith in innovation is a form of faith in science and progress.

    But are we going to get objective answers from historians employed in education institutions when he delivered a speech—articulated a vision—that is about as pro-education as we’ll hear from a politician?

    – TL

  2. Ray–nice post!

    Obama has proven to be a good wordsmith on occasion, as everyone knows. But I’m more interested in his actions. To me, he seems to have learned his lessons from the Clinton administration, which shifted hard to the right following the 1994 midterm debacle, getting out ahead of the Republicans on “ending welfare as we know it,” among other things. My sense is that Obama is following suit, naming even more business-friendly members to his cabinet, extending Bush’s tax cuts, and talking increasingly about making America more competitive as opposed to more fair. A generous reading of Obama is that he’s co-opting conservative language to liberal ends, or, as Sean Wilentz argues of Clinton in his book “The Age of Reagan” (which I recently re-read with my students), he’s doing what he can to keep liberalism alive in a conservative age. But I think this is overly generous and am inclined to think of Obama as a “neoliberal overlord,” as you put it. Actions speak.

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