The State of the Union’s Quiet Radicalism

Michael Tomasky of The Daily Beast’s response to the president’s fifth State of the Union address sounds much like my own. It was Obama’s second liberal stemwinder in a row; and if nothing else, the speech was a testament to the sincerity of the president’s oft-stated focus on the “long game” of politics:

What is not a waste of time…is using your pulpit as president of the United States to lay out a vision for the sort of society you would like to see America become. Barack Obama is going to retire in January 2017, but history isn’t likely to end then. Obama knows that fighting climate change and getting universal pre-school and doing something to help the working poor are big jobs, long jobs. They’re certainly not going to happen under the current legislative configuration, and they’re probably not going to happen while he’s in office.

But they are going to happen…[Obama’s] play is to inch us toward those goals however he can.

I’m not sure Gude would actually disagree with me on this, but I’d emphasize that Obama-style “piecemeal reform,” while not enough to create the kind of change that’d leave an activist satisfied, can be valuable, and even transformational, if it’s tied to an ambitious rhetorical framework. As cognitive scientist, linguist, Democratic advisor, and author George Lakoff (h/t Michele) detailed in a post-SOTU Huffpo piece, the president’s rhetoric as of late shows all indications of being consciously designed to not only normalize progressivism but to integrate it into a new vision of Americanism.

Above all else, what separates Obama’s America from Romney’s or Bush’s or Reagan’s or, to a lesser degree, even Clinton’s is an elegant rejection of the traditional view of government and civil society as inherently distinct, separated by a vague but impenetrable wall. Republicans have cast this artificial divide as a bulwark of freedom, while Democrats have tended to ignore it or to cite it in celebration in order to assure they’re innocent of any deviating thoughtcrime. Lakoff thinks Obama’s looking to shed all that disingenuous baggage:

“Our unfinished task” refers to citizens — us — as ruling the government, not the reverse. “We” are making the government do what is right. To work “on behalf of the many, and not just the few.” And he takes from the progressive vision the heart of the conservative message. “We” require the government to encourage free enterprise, reward individual initiative, and provide opportunity for all. It is the reverse of the conservative view of the government ruling us. In a progressive democracy, the government is the instrument of the people, not the reverse.

For most leftists, this is understandably going to sound like faint praise. And I want to underline that my defense of Obama is not a roundabout way of urging activists and radicals to stop complaining, stop agitating, stop demanding more. Obama’s only been able to tweak the mainstream of American political rhetoric because of the ways that activists and the like have spent decades pushing for far more than his State of the Union ever dared. I’m not here to pick a side, in short.

But I do think there is truth to the idea that along with a “long game,” there is an “inside game” and an “outside game” to politics as well. And while passage of Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and the president’s appointments to the Supreme Court will stand as more consequential examples of the inside game’s value, having a popular president who gives a speech celebrating a politics of community, founded on belief in the transformative power of empathy, deserves more than a hand-wave or nitpick in response.

@eliasisquith

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12 thoughts on “The State of the Union’s Quiet Radicalism

  1. My nitpicky response has not passed the test laid out in that last sentence. So I will reframe.

    And it’s always important to be reminded that my beef has never been with Obama’s domestic agenda, or the accompanying rhetoric.

    I wish he were a prime minister, and not a president, instead of a U.S. president whose rhetoric must transcend the office, and whose accountability far outstrips his authority.

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      • Indeed. But that is the trap that all Presidents of the United States have been thrust into. The economy can go bad, foreign affairs can go bad, government programs can be undercut, all of this can be done by the legislative… and if they’re really in concert, the Head Cheerleader In Chief can be overridden.

        And even if they’re not acting in concert, there’s every chance for a bit of gridlock to leave the Head Cheerleader with nothing to cheerlead, no progress to report. In tough economic times with laws and policies that desperately need revision, the executive becomes virtually powerless.

        It always amuses me to hear the right wing squawk about the “socialist agenda” and all the bad that supposedly happened to them for “Obama’s Policies”, when he had a grand total of 28 days before the filibuster-mongering kicked in. What we’ve had since was nothing but gridlock, and even the PPACA – or “Obamacare” as they call it – is so watered down and filterd through the horse-trading requirements that it’s half of half of quarter measures at best.

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  2. Elias – You state “For most leftists, this is understandably going to sound like faint praise.” in response to Lakoff’s take on what Obama’s vision demands of “we” the people. Can you help me understand, because I just don’t get how some will see as weak something I see as so powerful?

    This “government is the instrument of the people, not the reverse” view has been a part of Obama’s make-up from the very beginning. Remember “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” from 2008? Others may dismiss this as airy rhetoric, but I find it remarkably astute. You see it time and time again in our history, where change is driven by the culture and the politics are last to the party. Women’s suffrage, civil rights, same-sex marriage – the list goes on. The People don’t have the seats of power or the bankroll, but they have the numbers, dammit. Change comes slow this way, but change driven by the many versus the few is inexorable.

    And as you say, this path to a better tomorrow doesn’t preclude activists and radicals from agitating for more – it depends on it. This primal role in the formation of our future should thrill lefty activists.

    Later in his post, Lakoff gets it exactly right:

    The president can’t do it. Congress can’t do it. Only we can as citizens, by adopting the president’s vision, thinking in his moral frames, and speaking out from that vision whenever possible. Speaking out is at the heart of being a citizen, speaking out is political action, and only if an overwhelming number of us speak out, and live out, this American vision, will the president and the Congress be forced to do what is best for all.

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    • Agreed with the change is slow theme: it often takes folks raised in a new generation to change things, such as we see happening with same sex marriage where there is a significant age gap in the view of the subject. In those things where there is a big difference in opinions by age, time will eventually lead to the opinions of the younger group winning unless the opinions of individuals change with age. In fact this is the stated problem the republicans face they appeal to an older generation, who are becoming less than a majority in the US. Or consider could Obama have been elected in 1972? (assuming he would have been 35 then) I doubt it, it took the WWI and a good chunk of the WWII generation leaving the scene to change the result. This sort of change does mean that most of us will not live to see it however.

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  3. LOL

    “Our unfinished task” refers to citizens — us — as ruling the government, not the reverse. “We” are making the government do what is right. To work “on behalf of the many, and not just the few.” And he takes from the progressive vision the heart of the conservative message. ”

    The populace does NOT want to rule. They want to be ruled. Please. Bread and Circuses. And the politicians surely do not want the citizens to rule, that’s why they campaigned to get elected.

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    • This is the formula that leads to an oligarchy, because there will always be some who do want to rule and they’ll take the power if no one else claims it. And you may be right that that is what we have currently, since the US is functionally an oligarchy now.

      But as I see it, you’ve got choices:
      – If you accept that the populace will NEVER want to rule, then you might well make yourself comfortable eating the bread and watching the circuses, as any other political effort is a profound waste of time. Waiting for more better politicians is a fool’s errand.
      – Or you could buy into a vision of a more engaged citizenry that could better dictate the direction of the country and you work towards that.

      I know which one I’d choose.

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      • Scott,
        I’ve watched the populace be slowly dumbed down and infantilized. They have gladly relinquished their inheritance for someone who promises to take care of them (that being every politician since 1940 ish). I have watched politicians lie to the populace to get elected then come back and lie to them more and get reelected. No, until there is a profound change in the populace, attempting “change” within the system is pointless. The Tea Party, once a free radical, has been mostly co-opted now. No, the system must fall of its own weight. We’ll build something new out of the ashes.

        The ONLY process of change that I see ever taking place along the lines of your “option 2” would be “engaged citizenry” marching on DC and removing our elected officials by force, but I doubt that’s what you meant when you wrote it. That option, I think, is still highly unlikely.

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    • I would point out that the Conservative view isn’t as portrayed. Even at the RNC convention Clint Eastwood pointed out that the President is an employee, who if he’s not performing should be regretfully fired.

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  4. “Obama knows that fighting climate change and getting universal pre-school and doing something to help the working poor are big jobs, long jobs. ”

    Sounds like a good time to be fighting the good fight. I feel proud just knowing you guys.

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