Part 1—In search of “we the people:” Did President Obama “make a forceful argument for a progressive agenda” in his Inaugural Address?
That’s what it says in today’s hard-copy New York Times, in one of the headlines atop the featured editorial. In the body of the piece, the editors describe Obama’s call for “collective action:”
NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (1/22/13): He argued eloquently for a progressive view of government, founded on history and his own deep conviction that American prosperity and the preservation of freedom depend on collective action. In the coming days, there will be no let-up of political combat over the debt ceiling, gun control, national security and tax policies that can either reduce income inequality or allow such inequality to stifle economic growth and opportunity for all but the very wealthiest in this society.We agree. Almost surely, it will take “collective action” for “we the people” to address our most pressing concerns.
But, on Monday, the president stepped back from those immediate battles to explain what it means in the broadest sense to be “we the people,” Mr. Obama’s most eloquent description of our common heritage.
In every sphere of life—improving education, building roads, caring for the poor and elderly, training workers, recovering from natural disasters, providing for our defense—progress requires that Americans do these things together, Mr. Obama said.
We Americans will have to “do these things together.” But did Obama’s address show us the way to that future? A bit later on, the editors tell us this:
NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL: He spoke only obliquely of the persistent gridlock in Congress, where he will face right-wing Republicans whose bleak agenda would weaken civil rights, shred the social safety net and block important programs that could help put millions of jobless Americans back to work. “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect,” he said.Our questions: If you accuse people of “absolutism,” have you thereby engaged in “name-calling?” And also:
Was Obama suggesting that red and blue teams have both “mistaken absolutism for principle?” Or was that highlighted comment designed to scold the other side?
We will guess that many liberals heard that remark in a tribal way—as a criticism of the other tribe. By normal construction, that would be a sensible way to hear Obama’s speech.
This brings us to one of the least satisfying aspects of the president’s address—the long construction in which he explained what “We, the people” think and believe. This is the part of the speech where this theme began:
OBAMA (1/21/13): My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it—so long as we seize it together. For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.There was more. But do “we the people” really understand, believe and declare all those things? Actually, no—we do not. At least, not in a way which would easily lead to “collective action” in which we seek progress together.
We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future. For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty, and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn.
We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.
We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.
As Obama was being sworn in again, Nate Silver was throwing a statistical wet blanket over the proceedings. In this post, he reminded us of the wages of modern polarization. Most simply put, Obama was elected with just 51.1 percent of the vote—and his current approval rating stands at just 52 percent.
Uh-oh! Despite the president’s rhetoric, “we the people” don’t agree in essential ways on a wide array of topics. Question: How might we move toward a greater consensus? How might we build the type of consensus which leads to collective action?
On TV, we liberals were cheering last night. We cited the president’s comments about “absolutism,” the absence of “takers” and about those who “may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science.” Meanwhile, the editors thought they heard Obama make a “forceful” and “eloquent” argument.
But did the editors really hear that? More precisely, how so we get from a forceful and eloquent argument to an argument that is persuasive? How do we get from 52 percent to a place where “we the people” really do agree in ways which might produce “collective action?”
Are we one people? Or are we just a bunch of tribes who happen to share a rather wide continent? Despite the president’s representations, “we the people” really don’t agree on a very wide range of topics.
How do we get from here to there? We’ll examine that question all week.
Tomorrow: The rise of The (alleged) Crazy