Two days now after President Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention, and the conventional wisdom among pundits has now pretty much set the narrative: OK, not great, overshadowed by Clinton and Michelle Obama.* [Warning, or perhaps merely, alert: both of those are Sully links.]
One frequent strand of criticism is that in the midst of the predicament that continues to bedevil the United States now in its fourth year or so of too damn many people out of work, Obama went small, talking incremental solutions in times that demand transformative policy.
David Brooks, for one, had a terrible sad immediately after Obama finished despite the obvious howling enthusiasm of those in the hall.** His first reaction, delivered with the kind of grey pallor you get when you’re still trying to grab your senses after being whacked in the gut, was swiftly echoed in the column he posted shortly thereafter:
But what I was mostly looking for were big proposals, big as health care was four years ago…At its base, this is a party with a protective agenda, not a change agenda — dedicated to defending government in all its forms…Worse, the speech was dominated by unexplained goals that were often worthy, but also familiar, modest and incommensurate with the problems at hand….The country that exists is not on the right track. It has a completely dysfunctional political system. What was there in this speech that will make us think the next few years will be any different? America will only be governable again if there is a leader who breaks the mold and reframes the debate. Romney is unlikely to do that, and Obama’s speech didn’t offer much either.
Leave aside the nonsense and the sleight of hand on display here and throughout this particular column. Brooks has a genuine sense of disappointment because, as in the passage quoted above, he knows that Romney and the current Republican party is hopeless — and he loathes his fantasy of what Democrats actually aim to do (that “protective agenda” and “defending government in all its forms” BS). In particular, he feels that in these terribly parlous times, we need audacity above all else — and that President Obama’s speech lacked the necessary vision to accompany what he concedes is this President’s impressive character. (Again, leave aside the question of what “audacity” got is into during the previous administraton
Well, all that — the general sense of disappointment at the lack of orgasmic moments in the speech plus Brooks (and others) seizing on the “too small for the times” meme made me think. Is there any historical reference for what someone in such circumstance might say that would shed light on what Obama was trying — and in my view, successfully — to convey.
Why, yes there is. Remember how so many speakers termed the Bush collapse and its consequences the most disastrous since the Great Depression? Well, y’all may recall that we had a President elected to deal with the mess the Republicans had left him back then, and four years later, he had to make the case for re-election in times of economic hardship. To be clear — Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal (or New Deals) had a major impact on the economy in his first term, during which unemployment fell from 25% to just over 14%. You may note, however, that as the campaign in 1936 took place, that still represented a load of misery. So what did he say to the 1936 Democratic National Convention?
This, from the amazing finish to FDR’s speech:
The royalists of the economic order have conceded that political freedom was the business of the Government, but they have maintained that economic slavery was nobody’s business. They granted that the Government could protect the citizen in his right to vote, but they denied that the Government could do anything to protect the citizen in his right to work and his right to live.
Today we stand committed to the proposition that freedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place.
These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power. In vain they seek to hide behind the Flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the Flag and the Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike.
The brave and clear platform adopted by this Convention, to which I heartily subscribe, sets forth that Government in a modern civilization has certain inescapable obligations to its citizens, among which are protection of the family and the home, the establishment of a democracy of opportunity, and aid to those overtaken by disaster.
But the resolute enemy within our gates is ever ready to beat down our words unless in greater courage we will fight for them.
For more than three years we have fought for them. This Convention, in every word and deed, has pledged that that fight will go on.
The defeats and victories of these years have given to us as a people a new understanding of our Government and of ourselves. Never since the early days of the New England town meeting have the affairs of Government been so widely discussed and so clearly appreciated. It has been brought home to us that the only effective guide for the safety of this most worldly of worlds, the greatest guide of all, is moral principle.
We do not see faith, hope and charity as unattainable ideals, but we use them as stout supports of a Nation fighting the fight for freedom in a modern civilization.
Faith— in the soundness of democracy in the midst of dictatorships.
Hope—renewed because we know so well the progress we have made.
Charity— in the true spirit of that grand old word. For charity literally translated from the original means love, the love that understands, that does not merely share the wealth of the giver, but in true sympathy and wisdom helps men to help themselves.
We seek not merely to make Government a mechanical implement, but to give it the vibrant personal character that is the very embodiment of human charity.
We are poor indeed if this Nation cannot afford to lift from every recess of American life the dread fear of the unemployed that they are not needed in the world. We cannot afford to accumulate a deficit in the books of human fortitude.
In the place of the palace of privilege we seek to build a temple out of faith and hope and charity.
It is a sobering thing, my friends, to be a servant of this great cause. We try in our daily work to remember that the cause belongs not to us, but to the people. The standard is not in the hands of you and me alone. It is carried by America. We seek daily to profit from experience, to learn to do better as our task proceeds.
Governments can err, Presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales.
Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.
There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.
In this world of ours in other lands, there are some people, who, in times past, have lived and fought for freedom, and seem to have grown too weary to carry on the fight. They have sold their heritage of freedom for the illusion of a living. They have yielded their democracy.
I believe in my heart that only our success can stir their ancient hope. They begin to know that here in America we are waging a great and successful war. It is not alone a war against want and destitution and economic demoralization. It is more than that; it is a war for the survival of democracy. We are fighting to save a great and precious form of government for ourselves and for the world.
I accept the commission you have tendered me. I join with you. I am enlisted for the duration of the war. [full text here]
Altered for changes in idiom, the oratorical style of the speakers, and the fact that the economic royalists that vex us so no longer concede even political freedom to those who have won it so recently and at such cost, and this maps onto to President Barack Obama’ s understanding of the task before us almost eerily perfectly. Here’s his last few sentences:
If you reject the notion that this nation’s promise is reserved for the few, your voice must be heard in this election.
If you reject the notion that our government is forever beholden to the highest bidder, you need to stand up in this election.
If you believe that new plants and factories can dot our landscape, that new energy can power our future, that new schools can provide ladders of opportunity to this nation of dreamers, if you believe in a country where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same rules, then I need you to vote this November.
America, I never said this journey would be easy, and I won’t promise that now. Yes, our path is harder, but it leads to a better place.Yes, our road is longer, but we travel it together.
We don’t turn back. We leave no one behind. We pull each other up. We draw strength from our victories. And we learn from our mistakes. But we keep our eyes fixed on that distant horizon knowing that providence is with us and that we are surely blessed to be citizens of the greatest nation on earth.
Thank you, God bless you and God bless these United States.
Throughout his address, Roosevelt offered no grander vision than Obama’s, at least in part for the same reason: he knew what needed to be done because he’d been doing it, even if the job wasn’t finished yet. He understood, as does President Obama, and President Clinton, and Joe Biden and many, many others, that what’s in play this election is not change, but freedom — the question of whether that much abused word must be construed only in it’s narrowest sense, or in a way that actually enables members of a free society to act freely. The alternative, as both Roosevelt and Obama warned, is that the opposing forces — those that in both 1936 and 2012 had presided over the disaster it was left to Democratic presidents to repair — get to reverse the unfinished business of creating a society both more just and materially successful?
The question answers itself — or should, and will, if we get the job done between now and November 6.
One last thought: I usually ascribe to Brooks malign motives. Here, while the usual writing to a preordained conclusion (Obama is too small for the office), I think this is less a rational act of dishonesty and much more a fundamental inability to hear what was being said. If I’m right in the parallel I see between FDR and BHO, then there really is a radical claim being made, a demand that the economic oligarchs recognize and act on responsibility to society, and not just shareholders or individual self interest. That’s the vision. It’s not about policy; it’s about the template of human relations and obligations from which policy will flow. And little Brooks — small in mind and emotional range — doesn’t seem able to process that thought. Which is, in this one instance, more sad than evil.
*Not me, BTW. Like a lot of folks, I thought the speech started at relatively low volume, and it may be that Obama took a moment to find the music in the words on the page. But I thought the speech was intricately constructed and that on the night, it built beautifully to an unexpected climax: that the choice isn’t simply between vampires and competent, if fallible, human beings, but between Hobbesian wolves and citizens, members of common enterprise, what the founders might have called our commonwealth. That is, Obama’s use of the word “citizens” over and over again seemed to me a moral exhortation, a call to do not simply what is necessary or rational or in some limited interest, but what is right for the polis of which he reminded us we are all members, citizens. Damn fine speech writing and delivery if you ask me, which you didn’t. See Fallows for an interesting assessment of the speech, complete w. two reader emails that describe pretty much the speech I saw.
**That last section of the speech really was a grand example of using a sense of dynamics (in the musical sense) to lead your audience to the emotional conclusion you want them to reach. A textbook demonstration of applause surfing, as I think someone said on the night.
Images: Titian, The Marquis of Vasto addressing his troops, 1540-1541.
Hendrik Gerritsz. Pot, The Miser, 1640s