Sunday, January 16, 2011

President Obama Rises to the Occasion in Tucson

by Michael Kaplan

President Obama addresses the Together We Thrive Memorial Service in Tucson, Wednesday January 12, 2011.

“Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, ‘When I looked for light, then came darkness.’  Bad things happen, and we have to guard against simple explanations in the aftermath.”

Kudos to President Obama for delivering the speech the nation needed to hear at the Together We Thrive Memorial Service for the victims of Jared Loughner in Tucson this past Wednesday. The speech, which Ross Douthat rightly calls the best of his presidency, was praised by liberals and conservatives alike (aside from Rush Limbaugh). With this speech, the president fulfilled his most important ceremonial function as the embodiment and voice of the nation. Here is the video and the transcript of the speech.

In Tucson, the president spoke as the leader of all the people of the United States, not just of the Democratic Party or his liberal progressive base. In parliamentary democracies, such as Great Britain, the mythic ceremonial position of head of state and the pragmatic political position of head of government are separated: the prime minister serves as the partisan head of government, pushing to implement his party’s policies, while the queen performs the ceremonial role of head of state, the symbol and voice for the entire nation. The President of the United States, in contrast, combines both these roles in his office. He is both leader of his party and the high priest and symbolic focal point of the nation’s civil religion of American exceptionalism. The president has to find the balance between championing the liberal or conservative agenda and giving voice to the highest hopes and aspirations of the nation. Few presidents have been able to really pull this off. In the modern era, FDR and Ronald Reagan were by far the most successful. Both men were great communicators who knew how to touch the souls of their countrymen, always evoking in plain language and vivid imagery, why America is an exceptional nation, while governing as fierce champions of their respective partisan agendas.

Until now President Obama has largely failed in the mythic ceremonial duties of the presidency. Many Americans, not only liberal progressives, cast their votes for Barack Obama in 2008 because he spoke as if he could heal the wounds the nation had suffered since 9/11. In his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama spoke of transcending America’s divisions, political and otherwise, and moving forward as one people.
Yet even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, theres not a liberal America and a conservative America - theres the United States of America. Theres not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; theres the United States of America. The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But Ive got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we dont like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.
This is an eloquent statement of American exceptionalism. This was the Barack Obama many Americans believed could turn hope and change into a reality. But it was not to be. As president, Obama has not lived up to the promise of his rhetoric. He governed from day one as a hard partisan of the liberal left, unable to rise above partisanship to embrace his mythic ceremonial role as the voice of the nation. Granted this is much harder to do given the omnipresent media frenzy of the twenty-first century. To make matters worse, Obama, unlike FDR, feels no connection to Jacksonian America and its traditional populist culture of honor and nationalism, which provides much of the mythopoetic grammar and imagery for the president’s sacred and symbolic function. Ronald Reagan, who was very much a product of Jacksonian America, had the advantage here. Reagan was able to act as a partisan of the conservative agenda and rise above it at the same time. Reagan successfully served as the symbolic voice of the nation and high priest of American exceptionalism, despite a media onslaught from the left every bit as vicious as the onslaught Obama has had to face from the right. And though Reagan didn’t have talk radio, Fox News, and the conservative blogs to support him, he went above the heads of his political and media opponents to appeal directly to the American people. Reagan gave voice to the highest aspirations of the nation, painted a vision of morning in America, while also working to enact conservative policies. Here Obama has fallen short.

On Wednesday, the nation finally got to see the Barack Obama it had been waiting for; the president acting as high priest of Americanism finally emerged. Speaking of Gabrielle Giffords, Christina Taylor Green, and the other victims of Jared Lee Loughner’s madness, and those who risked or sacrificed their lives to help them, Obama touched on classic Jacksonian themes of honor.

These men and women remind us that heroism is found not only on the fields of battle.  They remind us that heroism does not require special training or physical strength.  Heroism is here, in the hearts of so many of our fellow citizens, all around us, just waiting to be summoned—as it was on Saturday morning. Their actions, their selflessness poses a challenge to each of us.  It raises a question of what, beyond prayers and expressions of concern, is required of us going forward.  How can we honor the fallen?  How can we be true to their memory?
I found Barack Obama’s speech to be broadly complementary to Sarah Palin’s message released earlier the same day, which I discussed in the previous post. The president expressed many of the same themes of finding strength and meaning in tragedy that Mrs. Palin did. And he put some distance between himself and those on the left who were maliciously using the tragedy to libel their political opponents. “But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized—at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do—it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.” The president went on to add that we need not be defined by our political differences: “And I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.”

That’s all true as far as it goes. But it should not obscure the other truth that for all that does unite us, Americans are also a divided people, and always have been. We’re divided along lines of class, culture, ideology, religion, economics and a whole range of interest-group issues. In 1776, Americans were divided into Patriots, Loyalists, and fence sitters, who then fought a bloody communal war for eight long years. In 1783, the victorious Patriots drove the defeated Loyalists into exile, while the fence sitters claimed to have been Patriots all along. Ever since the Revolution, American politics has been a vicious blood sport; it is the arena in which the conflicting views of what the nation should be are fought out, and in time, when a consensus is reached (on some issues), policies are devised and laws are passed. Our many interest groups also serve to check and balance each other, as James Madison anticipated in Federalist No. 10. The most important division in America today is the social, cultural and ideological divide between the liberal, progressive, secular, elite, cosmopolitan, “blue social model” America of Barack Obama, which traces its lineage, through the Wilsonian tradition, back to Puritan New England (and Puritan Old England); and the conservative, traditional, religious, populist, nationalist, Jacksonian America of Sarah Palin, which traces its origins back to the Scots-Irish culture of the frontier, and beyond that to the Ulster Plantation and the Anglo-Scottish Borders.

This chasm between progressive America and Jacksonian America, as Dan Henninger pointed out, “goes back a long way, it is deep, and it will never be bridged.” Lee Harris adds that “the real split in the American psyche . . . is essentially a cultural divide. On the one side are those Americans for whom nothing can be more sacred than honor, patriotism, and God, and who get goose-bumps at the very mention of these words. On the other side are those who instinctively cringe at what they regard as the shameless display of such manipulative emotionalism.” Americans disagree sharply over the meanings of patriotism, religion, and traditional moral values in American life.

Just as important, as Paul Krugman argues, is a fundamental disagreement between liberals and conservatives over the proper role of government in American life. “Today’s G.O.P. sees much of what the modern federal government does as illegitimate; today’s Democratic Party does not.” James Bennet adds that “The party of Roosevelt believes government can and should be a force for good. The party of Reagan thinks that, apart from national defense, government mostly gets in the way.” Liberal progressives believe that the welfare state—the blue model—manifests society’s moral obligation to compel the successful to pay for a safety net for those who are struggling. Jacksonian conservatives believe that such an obligation is an unwarranted assault on their liberty—that is if it’s a safety net for the undeserving poor. Jacksonians do, however, believe in a safety net for the working and middle classes who’ve worked hard, played by the rules, and have been productive. Walter Russell Mead writes that throughout American history, “Jacksonians . . . were less concerned that the government was spending money than that it was taking Jacksonian money and giving it to others.” Jacksonians are opposed to government programs set up to redistribute wealth. But, as Henry Olsen put it, “They value programs that can protect them against losing everything they have, and also those that can help their children achieve more than they ever had.” Krugman, in an unusual display of wisdom, advises that “the real challenge we face is not how to resolve our differences—something that won’t happen any time soon—but how to keep the expression of those differences within bounds.”

This is what President Obama was telling the nation in Tucson. The president helped bring us together in mourning over the victims of a terrible tragedy. He articulated some of the noblest aspirations of the American people. He reminded us that America is a great nation; great enough to withstand a madman’s lethal outburst with its core values of decency and morality intact. The president also had another objective. Like Bill Clinton after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Obama, by bringing the nation together in mourning, hoped to revive his political fortunes in time for the next election. Since the Democratic Party’s “shellacking” in the November midterm elections, Obama has made some moves toward the center, much to the chagrin of the liberal progressive base. Dick Morris, the master triangulator himself, believes that Obama’s Tucson speech, more than anything else, signals a genuine shift by his administration to the center. The president, to save himself, appears willing to throw the now orphaned left under the bus. If Obama can triangulate in 2011 as Clinton did in 1995, find some common ground with Republicans in Congress, and reclaim the president’s mantle as the symbolic embodiment of the nation, he may well ensure his re-election in 2012.

I have not been a supporter of Barack Obama in his political role as head of government. I don’t like his policies and the direction in which he has been trying to take this nation—toward a European-style social democracy. In this I believe he must be opposed. But I can support him in his mythic ceremonial role as head of state and voice of the nation. I find Obama Derangement Syndrome just as repugnant as Bush Derangement Syndrome or Palin Derangement Syndrome. So I sincerely hope Obama’s call for more civility in our political discourse is not a call for censorship; a veiled attempt to silence those voices—conservative voices—that are determined to block the liberal progressive agenda. I prefer to believe that the president’s words at the Tucson memorial service were genuine and sincere.

We should be civil because we want to live up to the example of public servants like John Roll and Gabby Giffords, who knew first and foremost that we are all Americans, and that we can question each other’s ideas without questioning each other’s love of country and that our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American Dream to future generations.

© 2011 Michael Kaplan

Final revisions: February 19, 2011.