Does Obama have answers?

September 11, 2008

Barack Obama's convention speech both punctured neoliberal ideology and remained captive to it.

BARACK OBAMA's acceptance of the Democratic Party's nomination as its presidential candidate may be remembered more for its stagecraft--its delivery before a crowd of more than 80,000 in Invesco Field in Denver--than for its content.

But that would be a mistake, because the speech tells us a lot about how Obama sees the current political situation, and what he proposes to do about it.

It also tells something about what liberalism of the early 21st century represents.

The speech, titled "The Promise," wove a series of themes around the concept of a promise. Opening with a tribute to his origin as the son of an immigrant, he noted that his family carried "a belief that in America, their son could achieve whatever he put his mind to." But, he pointed out, "we meet at...a moment when our nation is at war, our economy is in turmoil, and the American promise has been threatened once more."

After slamming the Bush administration for, among other crimes, letting "veterans sleep on the street" and sitting on its hands "while a great American city drowns before our eyes," the normally cool Obama called out: "Tonight, I say to the American people, to Democrats and Republicans and Independents across this great land--enough! This moment--this election--is our chance to keep, in the 21st century, the American promise alive."

In that segment, Obama sought to connect with the disdain the Bush administration has brought on itself. This was his indictment. And yet his call to action was aimed at righting the ship of state--to reclaim the promise of equal opportunity that the Bush administration has threatened.

A little later in the speech, Obama elevated his charge against Bush to a more ideological attack on the dominant conservative ideology of the last generation. Endeavoring to join McCain to Bush's hip, he scored McCain for subscribing that old, discredited Republican philosophy--give more and more to those with the most, and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else. In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society, but what it really means is, you're on your own. Out of work? Tough luck. No health care? The market will fix it. Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps--even if you don't have boots. You're on your own.

Although this wasn't a major theme in his speech, it was a significant passage--and brought forth thunderous applause from the crowd in Denver.

For a generation, the Democratic Party has tailored its appeals in the shadow of what Obama is now calling an "old, discredited Republican philosophy." This was the impetus for Bill Clinton's destruction of welfare and his declaration that the "era of big government is over."

So it's significant that Obama, in trying to appeal to an electorate clearly soured on the current administration, would try to at least puncture the dominant neoliberal ideology that has underpinned the economic anxieties of millions.

At the same time, he tried to redefine the Democratic Party as a party that measures itself not by the

number of billionaires we have or the profits of the Fortune 500, but by whether someone with a good idea can take a risk and start a new business, or whether the waitress who lives on tips can take a day off to look after a sick kid without losing her job--an economy that honors the dignity of work...

Our government should work for us, not against us. It should help us, not hurt us. It should ensure opportunity not just for those with the most money and influence, but for every American who's willing to work.

This was the standard language of American liberalism in its heyday from the 1930s to the 1960s. It appeals to class anger and discontent--not to attack the class system itself, but to reinforce equality of opportunity, for the waitress as much as the small business owner. And if this sounds fresh or daring in 2008, it's because a generation of Democrats have domesticated neoliberalism into what liberal writer Robert Kuttner calls "centrist mush."

BUT EVEN while making some attempt to break out of the ideological straightjacket of the past 30 years, Obama remains its captive.

The "laundry list" section of his speech included a number of vague, but fairly meager, proposals for his administration. For instance, his pledge to "finally keep the promise [there's that word again!] of affordable, accessible health care for every single American" preserves the private insurance model that will do nothing to control costs or to make health care a right.

Even his pledge to spend $150 billion over 10 years to develop an alternative energy industry (by the way, including nuclear power) sounds impressive until you consider that the price tag is about one year's worth of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And, of course, under his meta-theme of "there is no red America or blue America, but the United States of America," Obama reached out across the divide of the "culture war" to propose splitting the difference with the right on a set of hot-button social issues, from abortion to immigration.

Another echo of the past was the other side of traditional liberalism--support for the U.S. government's imperial foreign policy. "We are the party of Roosevelt," he said. "We are the party of Kennedy. So don't tell me that Democrats won't defend this country." Obama's applause line skewered McCain for refusing to follow Osama bin Laden to the "cave where he lives."

But beyond the bravado lay a plan for expanding the U.S. war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for a "responsible" (read: slow) withdrawal from Iraq, for "rebuilding the military for future conflicts"; even for "standing up" for Georgia and Israel more effectively than McCain would.

Although Obama spoke on the 45th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, where Rev. Martin Luther King gave his "I Have A Dream" speech, Obama didn't spend much time dwelling on that historical parallel.

Perhaps he was wary of making the connection too obvious, or perhaps he realized that the liberalism he wanted to renovate wasn't that of King--whose commitment to grassroots struggle led him to break with the Democrats on the Vietnam War and to launch a Poor Peoples' Movement--but of King's contemporary, John F. Kennedy. As Toure F. Reed put it:

If we must compare Obama to liberal icons past, his record indicates that Obama's political vision probably owes more to John F. Kennedy--the guy who opposed the March on Washington and the Freedom Rides two years earlier in the name of moderation--than the organizers of the march that helped push Kennedy and later Lyndon Johnson to enact the very legislation that laid the foundation for Obama's professional and political aspirations.

So if Obama is elected president, progressives should be prepared to pressure him to follow through on liberal economic and social reform. He won't do it on his own.

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