21 January 2013

Togetherness: the Obama doctrine

The President delivered his second inaugural address today, one day after his official swearing-in. The speech had some moments targeted at specific critics. When he said, "the American people can no more meet the demands of today's world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias," he was making a dig at the gun lobby as well as challenging right-wing individualism. When he said, "The commitments we make to each other: through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security ... do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great." he was obviously addressing the impulse to divide the population into "takers" and "makers." No doubt the targets will recognize the jabs and will have their answers ready. Some may observe that the country was made great by risk-takers well before the safety-net measures cited by the President were taken. Of course, the President's critics have often questioned when exactly he (and his wife) believe the country actually became great. While some critics will focus on these implicit zingers, I wonder whether any will address the overarching theme of the speech. Consider this section:

We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together.
Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.
Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.
Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life's worst hazards and misfortune.

"Together" and "together" and "together." Followed by this: "My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it so long as we seize it together." What does that mean? Consider these elaborations: "We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship;" "while the means will change, our purpose endures: a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American;" "We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity."

A different worldview persuades others that not everyone can or will "find independence and pride in their work," and that not every effort will or can be rewarded in the way the President supposes. This other worldview allows for no guarantees of these things for the sake of "a basic measure of security and dignity." It presumes that there will always be losers, as a matter of blunt fact if not in the pejorative sense used by bloggers or radio talkers, and that to tamper with a natural order of things so that no one loses will only make more of us, or everyone, lose.  This worldview encourages a suspicion that Obama's commitment to togetherness, to leaving no one behind, to everyone sharing in the achievements of the true winners as if every individual achievement were a collective one, only turns losers into freeloaders, parasites, "takers." Those who share this opposition worldview are not convinced that safety nets, much less the "hammocks" they really envision, encourage risk rather than complacent, entitled dependence upon the dole extracted from others' honest toil.

In the U.S. two distinct ideals of fairness are in conflict. The Obama ideal defines fairness as everyone sharing in national achievement, while the opposition sees everyone sharing, regardless of merit, as profoundly unfair. As expressed today, Obama's vision doesn't appear to allow for the possibility that some seek a free ride; that may be because he sees living itself as a struggle. He recalls "the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty, and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn." The opposition might answer that some poverty is deserved, while there has never been nowhere else but government for people in crises to turn. In the broadest terms possible, Obama's espousal of togetherness may be rooted in the simplest hedonism: poverty=suffering=bad. The opposition most likely still believes that some suffering, at least, may prove salutary, or that some people may only learn how to live if they suffer from mistakes. But in more practical terms, the Obama doctrine means that Americans can't refuse to give a damn, on "personal responsibility" grounds, whether or not any fellow citizens develop the skills needed to keep the country competitive or prosperous. Americans might question whether Obama's specific policies actually result in this collective skill acquisition, but Obama would presumably argue that they can't be indifferent to the prospect of millions growing up with nothing to contribute. It may just be a liberal dream that everyone has something to contribute, or the potential to contribute; harder-headed leftists may be more inclined to give up on unproductive or uncooperative people. But who really can object to that dream? The answer is all too obvious, but I'm not sure if everyone, including some who object, understand exactly what they're objecting to. As the usual suspects post their reactions to Obama's address, we may get a better idea.


Anonymous said...

"A different worldview persuades others that not everyone can or will "find independence and pride in their work,"

But we can't know whether it's possible until we actually provide the opportunity to everyone. If the right-wing believes that government should not create jobs and should not coerce big business to create jobs, what, exactly, is their solution?

Samuel Wilson said...

Their solution is "personal responsibility." It's up to each person to find his place by making himself useful -- and presumably it's up to that person to just die quietly if there's no place for him. If people want to help this theoretical unfortunate, that's fine -- but the right-wing appears to recognize no automatic obligation to do so that could be enforced by law.

Anonymous said...

But one cannot simply "will" a job into being. The fact that they can point out a small percentage of the population who "make it" as proof that the system works really only proves that the system does not work. a working system would work for the majority.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I think it is too bad that one couldn't just wave a magic wand and make the livelihoods of every right-winger disappear. I would be very interested in seeing how they would react if all opportunities were stripped from them and given to a third worlder.

Anonymous said...

I was re-reading the excerpts from the speech and I have to wonder what all the references to "we" and "together" are. Unless he's specifically referring to the Democrat party? The right has made no secret that they are not "together" on any of this, and that they don't consider Obama, Democrats, leftists, progressives, etc as part of any "we" which they are a part of. So what is the point of his speech? Unless it's just to publicly slap the right. In which case I applaud him. Otherwise, he's just blowing more hot air.