It was good to hear President Obama speak bluntly of how the Bush administration took the country into two wars but cut taxes; of how rich Americans have grown so much richer while working people have fallen behind; and of how the Republicans' budget plan would exacerbate American inequality and turn this country into something the majority of us definitely do not want. It was also good to hear him state that he would not allow the right to realize its un-American schemes. And of course it was good to hear him talk of taxing the rich.
I applaud all of that. But I worry. For not only were the President's plans on deficit reduction too vague to make critical sense, but he also stated two times that "any serious plan to tackle our deficit will require us to put everything on the table..." Those last words stuck with me all day. Even more troubling was what the President did not address. I heard nothing, for example, about economic growth and development. Nothing about industrial renewal. And nothing about jobs, jobs, jobs. Plus, I heard nothing about the assaults on public workers' collective bargaining rights that Republicans are pursuing at the state level -- most notably here in Wisconsin -- under the guise of reducing state and local budget deficits.
Late in the speech the President said: "So this is our vision for America -- this is my vision for America -- a vision where we live within our means while still investing in our future; where everyone makes sacrifices but no one bears all the burden; where we provide a basic measure of security for our citizens and we provide rising opportunity for our children." Sweet. But that's his vision? That's what liberalism has become?
We are in deep trouble, not just economically and fiscally. We are in deep trouble politically, as well -- and not simply because the Republicans have become a party of reactionaries. We are also in trouble because the Democrats have become a party of visionless politicians. Values, maybe. Vision, no. They seem to waver between deference and defense. Remember, Americans historically have made a great nation of themselves not by cautiously defending the status quo, but by dramatically advancing freedom, equality, and democracy -- especially in times of crisis. In his speech the President ignored that fact and that possibility. But that has been Obama's failing from the start. In contrast to Franklin Roosevelt, he has failed to engage, empower, and enable Americans to join in confronting the crisis and participate in the making of history.
Harvey J. Kaye is the Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. He is currently writing The Four Freedoms and the Promise of America. Follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HarveyJKaye