Every President attempts to shape the nation, respond to the times, and leave a legacy that goes beyond the presidential library. Barack Obama, to be fair, has far more on his plate than many presidents – he has to, among other things, fix the economy, end the wars, save the planet from global warming, and reform our healthcare system.
The speech last night was, of course, about the latter. As I listened, though, I didn’t just hear about a health care plan, I heard once again what Obama has chosen as another key task – rejecting the anti-government, individualistic message of Reaganism and redefining of America as a compassionate, intertwined community.
In 1980, the nation was beyond cynical about government – the betrayals of Watergate, the raging inflation, and the hostage crisis in Iran all pointed to an institution that was ineffective at best, deeply corrupt at worst. Instead of reinvigorating the idea of government as a safety net, a protector and a visionary force for good, Ronald Reagan mined America’s cynicism. He said that government was the source of America’s problems -- he would do his best to shrink it. Government, he said, did not solve problems, it “subsidized them.” Ironically, he left Americans burdened with a historic national debt.
Attending this anti-government message, Reagan needed an explanation as to why those who had relied on a government safety net were undeserving. As he cut social services and threw people out on the street, he said that America was about individualism. About boot-strap pulling and rejection of the weak. Anyone who needed an occasional hand-up was the problem, sycophants taking your hard-earned tax dollars.
Every president since Reagan has tried, in their own way, to adopt this idea as their own. Even Bill Clinton, with his announcement that “the era of big government was over” and his cynical 1996 welfare reform bill, attempted to co-opt Reagan’s message for the Democrats.
Barack Obama, in his speech last night, created a new mantra. He acknowledged the strength of American individualism, and the value of debating the size of government, but then went further. He explicitly embraced the power of government as what can be a fundamental source of good. He reiterated what he’s said before, that “the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little…”
He then took a step in reminding us who we are – we are not and don’t have to be cold-hearted characters from an Ayn Rand novel, choosing to keep our blinders on. Obama tells us that we are allowed to, and should, care for our neighbor. We are allowed to, and should, sacrifice at times for our friend. It’s what, he reminds us, builds community, a stronger nation, a place where we can all thrive.
Last night, he said it this way:
“That large-heartedness -- that concern and regard for the plight of others -- is not a partisan feeling. It's not a Republican or a Democratic feeling. It, too, is part of the American character -- our ability to stand in other people's shoes; a recognition that we are all in this together, and when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand; a belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgment that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise.”
Yes, Obama has much on his shoulders but also great potential – he can, with our help, create a healthier, more peaceful and more sustainable society for us all. He can also, as he showed last night, create a new place and value for our intertwined national community, our collective civic society, for decades to come.