Where Are the Values? A Tale of Two Obamas

Jan 26, 2011Richard Kirsch

President Obama should remember the narrative about the role of government told by candidate Obama.

When he ran for President, Obama told a story about the relationship between government and individuals, steeped in values, which resonated with a broad cross-section of Americans. But in his State of the Union Address last night, the narrative and values disappeared. Instead, the President retreated to the same mishmash of programs that Democrats are most often criticized for. The contrast with the Republican response offered by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, whose entire remarks were about the Republican idea of limited government, was unmistakable.

For those who think that Democrats don’t have a powerful narrative, the best retort is the core of the speech Obama gave when he accepted the Democratic nomination for President in Denver:

What -- what is that American promise? It's a promise that says each of us has the freedom to make of our own lives what we will, but that we also have obligations to treat each other with dignity and respect. It's a promise that says the market should reward drive and innovation and generate growth, but that businesses should live up to their responsibilities to create American jobs, to look out for American workers, and play by the rules of the road. Ours -- ours is a promise that says government cannot solve all our problems, but what it should do is that which we cannot do for ourselves: protect us from harm and provide every child a decent education; keep our water clean and our toys safe; invest in new schools, and new roads, and science, and technology. Our government should work for us, not against us. It should help us, not hurt us. It should ensure opportunity not just for those with the most money and influence, but for every American who's willing to work. That's the promise of America, the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation, the fundamental belief that I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper. That's the promise we need to keep. That's the change we need right now.

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In his State of the Union, Obama listed many of the same policies: investment in research, education and infrastructure and environmental and consumer protections. But the idea of a government that “works for us” was buried under a list of programs. The notion that businesses have a responsibility to look out for American workers was replaced by the proposal that businesses have no choice but to race to the bottom to compete internationally. The values of mutual responsibility and common humanity were still there, but harder to find; competition took center stage.

For me, the most remarkable line in the entire speech was, “We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business.” What about making America the best place on Earth to work? To raise a family? That would require the opposite of what businesses want: good wages and benefits, family-friendly policies like paid family and medical leave, day care, flexible work, and strong environmental and consumer regulations. And tax policies that force businesses to either use their hordes of accumulated cash to invest in good jobs in America or pay higher taxes to a government that would put people to work when business won’t.

Obama passed his signature health and financial reform regulations when he put aside his reluctance to attack corporate power and went after the health insurance and financial industries. He was successful when he tapped into the popular disgust with the way corporate America makes obscene profits at the expense of everyday Americans. Of course corporate America fought back! Those in power always fight the hardest when their power is threatened. But capitulating to their power and adopting their agenda won’t put people back to work or improve the lives of average families.

A great strength of the Republican message is that it is consistent; they stick to the same vision no matter what through all the ebbs and flows of time and events. We need Democrats to do the same. When he ran for President, Obama laid out a powerful, values-based story of the role of government in helping to foster a society based on our common humanity, on interwoven values of freedom and responsibility. If progressives are to succeed in the long run, we need to keep telling our story and projecting our vision. We need to consistently champion an America that works for all of us, based on an economy and a government that works for all of us. We need to reverse the devastation of rising income inequality and make it clear that a strong America is built on a strong middle class. And we need to keep telling our story and projecting our values over and over again -- even when a President who shares those beliefs runs away.

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and is writing a book on the progressive campaign to enact health reform.

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