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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Defending Malaise (or, Lenten Thoughts on Obamanomics)

The reaction I seem to be reading everywhere (try here and here and here) is that Obama's speech last night was, above all, "ambitious" and "serious" and all about "getting down to business." For myself, I confess I liked it--liked it very much. I liked the focus on job, energy, health care, and education, in that order. I liked that he began with a big slab of honesty:

[W]e have lived through an era where too often, short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity; where we failed to look beyond the next payment, the next quarter, or the next election. A surplus became an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy instead of an opportunity to invest in our future. Regulations were gutted for the sake of a quick profit at the expense of a healthy market. People bought homes they knew they couldn't afford from banks and lenders who pushed those bad loans anyway. And all the while, critical debates and difficult decisions were put off for some other time on some other day.

I liked his smart, succinct description of why lending has become crucial to the modern capitalist society, and thus why the credit crisis matters to ordinary Americans who don't have a thing to do with the world of high finance:

The ability to get a loan is how you finance the purchase of everything from a home to a car to a college education; how stores stock their shelves, farms buy equipment, and businesses make payroll. But credit has stopped flowing the way it should. Too many bad loans from the housing crisis have made their way onto the books of too many banks. With so much debt and so little confidence, these banks are now fearful of lending out any more money to households, to businesses, or to each other. When there is no lending, families can't afford to buy homes or cars. So businesses are forced to make layoffs. Our economy suffers even more.

And most of all, I liked his short, powerful history lesson about the relationship between government and the common good of all:

I reject the view that says our problems will simply take care of themselves; that says government has no role in laying the foundation for our common prosperity. For history tells a different story. History reminds us that at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas. In the midst of civil war, we laid railroad tracks from one coast to another that spurred commerce and industry. From the turmoil of the Industrial Revolution came a system of public high schools that prepared our citizens for a new age. In the wake of war and depression, the GI Bill sent a generation to college and created the largest middle-class in history. And a twilight struggle for freedom led to a nation of highways, an American on the moon, and an explosion of technology that still shapes our world. In each case, government didn't supplant private enterprise; it catalyzed private enterprise. It created the conditions for thousands of entrepreneurs and new businesses to adapt and to thrive.

So all together I should be delighted with this near-comprehensive, thoughtful, and pretty straightforward and unapologetic defense of progressive political solutions to our problems. And certain I am delighted that this was the speech given by our president, and not the one given by Governor Jindal (about whose atrocious response to Obama I will say nothing, and just let Jindal's own fans tear him apart). Still, I'm little troubled, and I think it has to do with the day.

The complaints of various secularist and atheist malcontents aside, we're not a Constantinian nation--and even if we were, even moderately so, the civic religion around which American policies and holidays and expectations might be formulated probably wouldn't reflect the specifics of traditional Western Christian rites; we're too Protestant and evangelical for all that. But still, it struck me as incongruent that the morning after Obama's speech was Ash Wednesday and the beginnings, for many believers anyway, of Lent, a period of repentance, sacrifice, and humility, in preparation for Easter. Say what you want about Obama's speech, and its aims and its determination--one thing it definitely wasn't was humble.

Is humility something that we should want at the present moment? Strictly speaking, seeing as how modern finance and entrepreneur capitalism depends so much on investor confidence and a willingness to take risks, perhaps not. But I can only see that as unfortunate, because I think we could use a little bit more chastisement, a little bit more penitence, than Obama's expansive determination to see America recover and grow and achieve allows. In the end, his vision is not, despite what some may say, a particularly populist one, at least not if one takes populism seriously; condemning "CEOs [who]...use taxpayer money to pad their paychecks or buy fancy drapes or disappear on a private jet," does not translate into a focus on collective economic empowerment and local cultural enrichment. Rather, Obama's vision is a progressive one, one that insists that government investment and oversight can help individual Americans achieve--or get back to, depending on how you look at our economic history--full and equal "responsible" participation in the credit-driven world of opportunity which a healthy, diverse, technologically advanced economic environment makes possible. That's hardly a bad thing; as I've said before, the compromises with the power of capital and the individuating force of the market (both of which are arguably all the greater is a large, pluralistic, mobile country like our own) which the Progressives historically made are perhaps the most sensible kind of responses that can be made to our present socio-economic and political moment--assuming, that is, that you value the communitarian principles and virtues which a certain form of progressive, egalitarian participatory policies at least potentially seems to support. And I believe that Obama is, sometimes anyway, aware of and sympathetic to that point; hence his invocations of parental responsibility and charter schools and national service legislation. Still, I think I think the speech would have been bettered--I think we would have been bettered--if its ambitious progressivism acknowledged some real limits, and the value of humbling ourselves and sacrificing part of our ambitions to them.

As a speech or a program, of course, the route of "humility" and "limits" calls to mind President Carter's infamous "Malaise Speech"; the way that speech was--unfairly!--interpreted and responded to might seem to argue against any kind of humility in presidential rhetoric. And maybe so; humility, in the modern world, is mostly a personal, moral, and religious concept, and the modern presidency is not constructed to be a forum for therapists or prophets. But still, consider some of the language of Carter's speech, and how it might well have integrated with Obama's:

As a people we know our past and we are proud of it. Our progress has been part of the living history of America, even the world. We always believed that we were part of a great movement of humanity itself called democracy, involved in the search for freedom, and that belief has always strengthened us in our purpose. But just as we are losing our confidence in the future, we are also beginning to close the door on our past. In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose....There are two paths to choose. One is a path I've warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure. All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values.

Too subjective, too spiritual, too earnest? Perhaps. But Obama has already demonstrated his facility with the language of "service, sacrifice, duties, the common good, responsibility, citizenship"; why not extend his criticisms of bankers who lent money frivolously, of neighbors who bought homes they could never pay for, of corporations who pushed against any kind of regulation of their transactions, a further reflection on how American habits of consumption and self-interest make it hard for us to recognize the malaise and cynicism and uncharitableness that frequently, in good times as well as bad--but particularly during bad--takes hold of us all. Perhaps that would have undermined his ambitious tone, somewhat. But then again, a little Lenten humility, a little guilty and self-critical awareness, can go a long way to lifting one's seriousness of purpose into something more than determination--something that makes the goal into more than just getting back on track, but rather into an invocation of a different, better track. A steadier track, a less self-interested track. (For a national market economy, you ask? Well, it's not as though alternate models aren't available...)

But maybe this is all asking too much; maybe I'm letting the day and all sorts of other crisis-related thoughts get in the way of my thinking, making me wish that what was in essence a State of the Union address--and a very fine one at that--was something like Lincoln's Second Inaurgural. Which is silly, I suppose. Obama's a progressive politician, and on the basis of the past month or so, a very good one. I hope he keeps it up. Hoping for more than that may not be a bad thing, but it is, perhaps, a somewhat unreasonable...maybe even "ambitious" thing. In which case, perhaps I need to do some repenting myself.


Anonymous said...

I agree with your sentiments, but unfortunately I don't see any reason to believe that humility is one of Obama's strong points. I mean, really, the man started running for President after holding national office for about 2 1/2 years (and it's not like he had a major career as a technocrat or civil servant before then). There are many good things about Obama, but humility isn't one of them (at least at this stage, who knows he may 'grow' in office).

I second your feelings about Lincoln's Second Inaugural. What a brilliant, and profound, meditation on U.S. history contained within such a short speech- in the kind of interpreting-history-theologically tradition of people like Ezekiel, Isaiah and St. Augustine. Unfortunately, they don't make presidential speeches like that anymore.

Just out of curiosity, do the LDS follow Lent and the other seasons of the liturgical calendar?

Russell Arben Fox said...


I agree that Obama is probably not at all humble, which makes it all the more unreasonable to wish to have seen some from him in this speech. There are good reasons for this speech not to have been a humble one, and in a way the crisis is probably a good match for Obama's particular strengths (cool confidence, mostly). Still, I had my hopes.

Mormons do not, as a church, honor Ash Wednesday or indeed any of the liturgical calendar, besides the obvious (because absorbed into the civic and commercial mainstream) Christmas and Easter. I think that's unfortunate, but then, I'm a weird, high-church Lutheran/Mormon hybrid. (Not literally, but if you look at my own personal religious beliefs, that seems to be about where I would fit.) Besides that, there's the fact that my wife and I love holidays and marking our lives through holidays, religious or otherwise.

Baden said...

I liked the post Russ. I thought the speech was great, and liked his emphasis on jobs, energy, healthcare, and education aswell. He articulated very well his reasoning for what he is doing and the way he is doing it (as you have pointed out with the quotes). Lately I've been reading about French history. Just from the little that I've read, President Obama reminds me of Charles De Gaulle in certain ways.

First, De Gaulle was an excellent communicator. His clear communication skills saved him many times from political defeat and helped him succeed. He was very good at speaking directly to the people.

Second, he wanted France to lead the world in technological advancements. De Gaulle dumped massive amounts of money into R&D for new forms of energy and other technologies.

Third, De Gaulle wanted France to lead as a society. He did this with pragmatic and in certain cases moderate policies. For example in his economics, he found a middle road for France between American Capitalism and Russian Communism.

As far as President Obama goes:

First, he is an excellent communicator and has demonstrated his ability to clearly lay out what he believes and why.

Second, Obama wants America to get back on track as the leader in technological advancements. He is doing this already with the massive spending bill that was just passed.

Third, Obama wants America to lead as a society, and I believe that Obama is centrist and pragmatic in his approach to this. Obama is a keynsian (that's OK). He is not a socialist or Marxist.

It's been fun reading about France and thinking about their last 50 years. It makes me think about where we're at, how we are similar, and how we're different.