President Barack Obama gestures while speaking in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Monday, Sept. 19, 2011. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) (AP)

Is the purple president turning blue?

Obama's new rhetoric counts, even if it's insincere campaign rhetoric


Michael Lind
September 20, 2011 4:01PM (UTC)

During the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Austria’s Prince von Metternich, when told that the Russian ambassador had died, is said to have replied, "What can have been his motive?" American progressives are responding with similar suspicion to President Obama’s newly announced long-term deficit plan, following quickly on his proposed $447 billion jobs program.

Their suspicion is understandable. This is, after all, the president who, in the greatest economic crisis since the Depression, marginalized the leading center-left economists and economics experts and surrounded himself with the Wall Street-friendly Robert Rubin wing of the Democratic Party; the president who pushed for an initial economic stimulus only half as large as his advisor Christine Romer said it should be, and then let his attention wander to subjects other than job creation for several years; the president who, elected by Americans weary of war, added a third, unconstitutional war in Libya to the needlessly prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan begun by his predecessor. In light of his record to date, it is hardly surprising that many center-left American should want this president to be strapped to a lie detector whenever he makes any public statements.

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The skeptics may be right that the big plans that Obama has unrolled in recent weeks are election year propaganda. Certainly they have no chance of passing a Congress divided among Democrats, many of them more conservative than the president, and a House controlled by Republicans determined to paralyze the federal government until they can control it again.

Let it be stipulated that Obama’s plans are tactical exercises intended to define him against his Republican adversary in the 2012 election. Whatever its motives, that redefinition should be welcomed by Americans in the New Deal liberal tradition.

From now until Election Day in 2012, to judge by his recent speeches, Barack Obama has abandoned his strategy of Clintonian triangulation for one of appealing to the Democratic base that the triangulation strategy has alienated. That is progress.

There is even more reason to be pleased with the actual proposals that the president has made, even though everyone knows that they will not be enacted by Congress. The president is now on the record supporting a half-billion-dollar Keynesian stimulus in the short run, and a long-term approach to deficit reduction that obtains half of the savings from higher taxes on the rich.

The details of his plans can be criticized. Though it is far larger than anything Congress would approve, the second stimulus might yet be too small. The Obama administration still lacks a vision of economic growth, other than the discredited neoliberal vision of deregulation, globalization and incentives for corporations, although the national infrastructure bank that the president supports hints of an alternative economic strategy driven by public investment. Similarly, the administration has failed to propose methods of reducing the long-term costs of Medicare without rationing, even though experts are well aware of how other countries manage to control medical costs by measures like all-payer regulation.

But these are quibbles. The president has provided a clear alternative to the conservative program for the U.S. economy with his proposals for a short-term Keynesian stimulus plan and long-term tax increases on the rich, together with his rejection, at least for the time being, of cuts to Social Security. If Obama sticks to this script, then American voters next year will have a choice between two distinct visions of political economy -- one in the line of descent from Franklin Roosevelt and John Maynard Keynes, and another in the tradition that seeks the rolling repeal of the New Deal while cutting taxes even further on the wealthy. If Obama stays on message, then nobody will be able to say, in the words of George Wallace, "there ain’t a dime’s worth of difference" between the two national parties.

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Is it all just rhetoric? Maybe. But rhetoric matters. Rhetoric is what sinks into the minds of the voters and changes the political culture, when the wonky details of particular policies are forgotten.

For a generation, the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan has been echoed by Democrats like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as well as Republicans. In his actual policies, Reagan was moderate to liberal, by the extreme standards of today's Tea Party zealots. Reagan assented to repeated tax increases, he did not try to privatize Social Security or Medicare. He retaliated against unfair Japanese export promotion policies. He made peace with the Soviet Union and Mikhail Gorbachev.

But those reasonable actions do not make up the legacy of Ronald Reagan that has shaped -- one should say, warped -- American politics. Reagan’s rhetorical denunciations of government and idealization of the private sector created the climate in which deregulation could contribute to a second Depression and in which most of the gains from growth over a generation could go to a tiny plutocracy. Reagan did enormous and lasting harm to America with one sentence in his 1981 inaugural address, a sentence that was false then and is false now: "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."

In his plans for job creation and higher taxes on the wealthy, Obama has, at least for now, repudiated the tired Reaganite rhetoric that blames all problems on government and calls on the private sector to solve all our problems with its alleged dynamism and superior efficiency, neither of which have been much in evidence for more than a decade. It remains to be seen whether Reagan era rhetoric can be replaced by a new political language, in which calls on the privileged to do their fair share edge out denunciations of government as inherently corrupt and tyrannical. The future of American political rhetoric as well as politics and policy depends in part on the outcome of the 2012 election.

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Until then, it would not be amiss for progressives who are suspicious of the president to consider taking yes for an answer. All politicians to some degree are chameleons. Whatever his motives may be, progressives have reason to be pleased that the purple president seems to be turning blue. 


Michael Lind

Michael Lind is the author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States and co-founder of the New America Foundation.

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