We labored for an exhausting and enraging generation under the burden of Reagan's "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem" and "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help'" and from Thatcher's "There is no alternative" and "There is no such thing as society" and from Clinton's "The era of big government is over." What was "just rhetoric" facilitated decades of unjust outcomes, paralysis, wasted potential.
Obama's poetry translates into worldly outcomes, when it does at all, only through the ugly and inevitable prosaic sausage-making processes of stakeholder politics, but it is crucial to remember that the life of Obama's pithy defenses of good governance and welfare as investment and his criticisms of movement Republicanism and anti-governmentality as tried and failed ideologies is not exhausted by its compromised implementation in short-term policy making, but crucially includes the ongoing opening up of aspirational and organizational possibilities that will play out in the longer term, especially should we take them up ourselves and make something more of them.
Here is an excerpt from the President's New Foundation Speech earlier today (not all of which I approve of personally as it happens, haters, but most of which seems to me masterly and much of which seems to me crucially enabling of progressive efforts here and now):
[A]s we emerge from this recession, we can’t afford to return to the pre-crisis status quo. We can’t go back to an economy that was too dependent on bubbles and debt and financial speculation. We can’t accept economic growth that leaves the middle class owing more and making less. We have to build a new and stronger foundation for growth and prosperity -- and that’s exactly what we’ve been doing for the last 16 months.
It’s a foundation based on investments in our people and their future; investments in the skills and education we need to compete; investments in a 21st century infrastructure for America, from high-speed railroads to high-speed Internet; investments in research and technology, like clean energy, that can lead to new jobs and new exports and new industries.
This new foundation is also based on reforms that will make our economy stronger and our businesses more competitive -- reforms that will make health care cheaper, our financial system more secure, and our government less burdened with debt.
In a global economy, we can’t pursue this agenda in a vacuum. At the height of the financial crisis, the coordinated action we took with the nations of the G20 prevented a global depression and helped restore worldwide growth. And as we’ve recently witnessed in Europe, economic difficulties in one part of the world can affect everybody else. And that’s why we have to keep on working with the nations of the G20 to pursue more balanced growth. That’s why we need to coordinate financial reform with other nations so that we avoid a global race to the bottom. It’s why we need to open new markets and meet the goal of my National Export Initiative: to double our exports over the next five years. And it’s why we need to ensure that our competitors play fair and our agreements are enforced. This, too, is part of building a new foundation.
Now, some of you may have noticed that we have been building this foundation without much help from our friends in the other party. From our efforts to rescue the economy, to health insurance reform, to financial reform, most have sat on the sidelines and shouted from the bleachers. They said no to tax cuts for small businesses; no to tax credits for college tuition; no to investments in clean energy. They said no to protecting patients from insurance companies and consumers from big banks.
And some of this, of course, is just politics. Before I was even inaugurated, the congressional leaders of the other party got together and made a calculation that if I failed, they’d win. So when I went to meet with them about the need for a Recovery Act, in the midst of crisis, they announced they were against it before I even arrived at the meeting. Before we even had a health care bill, a Republican senator actually said, “If we’re able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.” So those weren’t very hopeful signs.
But to be fair, a good deal of the other party’s opposition to our agenda has also been rooted in their sincere and fundamental belief about the role of government. It’s a belief that government has little or no role to play in helping this nation meet our collective challenges. It’s an agenda that basically offers two answers to every problem we face: more tax breaks for the wealthy and fewer rules for corporations.
The last administration called this recycled idea “the Ownership Society.” But what it essentially means is that everyone is on their own. No matter how hard you work, if your paycheck isn’t enough to pay for college or health care or childcare, well, you’re on your own. If misfortune causes you to lose your job or your home, you’re on your own. And if you’re a Wall Street bank or an insurance company or an oil company, you pretty much get to play by your own rules, regardless of the consequences for everybody else.
Now, I’ve never believed that government has all the answers. Government cannot and should not replace businesses as the true engine of growth and job creation. Government can’t instill good values and a sense of responsibility in our children. That's a parent’s job. Too much government can deprive us of choice and burden us with debt. Poorly designed regulations can choke off competition and the capital that businesses need to thrive.
I understand these arguments. And it’s reflected in my policies. After all, one-third of the Recovery Act we designed was made up of tax cuts for families and small businesses. And when you think back to the health care debate, despite calls for a single-payer, government-run health care plan, we passed reform that maintains our system of private health insurance.
But I also understand that throughout our nation’s history, we have balanced the threat of overreaching government against the dangers of an unfettered market. We've provided a basic safety net, because any one of us might experience hardship at some time in our lives and may need some help getting back on our feet. And we've recognized that there have been times when only government has been able to do what individuals couldn't do and corporations wouldn't do.
That's how we have railroads and highways, public schools and police forces. That's how we've made possible scientific research that has led to medical breakthroughs like the vaccine for Hepatitis B, and technological wonders like GPS. That's how we have Social Security and a minimum wage, and laws to protect the food we eat and the water we drink and the air that we breathe. That’s how we have rules to ensure that mines are safe and, yes, that oil companies pay for the spills that they cause.
Now, there have always been those who’ve said no to such protections; no to such investments. There were accusations that Social Security would lead to socialism, and that Medicare was a government takeover. There were bankers who claimed the creation of federal deposit insurance would destroy the industry. And there were automakers who argued that installing seatbelts was unnecessary and unaffordable. There were skeptics who thought that cleaning our water and our air would bankrupt our entire economy. And all of these claims proved false. All of these reforms led to greater security and greater prosperity for our people and our economy.
So what was true then is true today. As November approaches, leaders in the other party will campaign furiously on the same economic arguments they’ve been making for decades. Fortunately, we don't have to look back too many years to see how their agenda turns out. For much of the last 10 years we've tried it their way. They gave us tax cuts that weren’t paid for to millionaires who didn’t need them. They gutted regulations and put industry insiders in charge of industry oversight. They shortchanged investments in clean energy and education, in research and technology. And despite all their current moralizing about the need to curb spending, this is the same crowd who took the record $237 billion surplus that President Clinton left them and turned it into a record $1.3 trillion deficit.
So we know where those ideas lead us. And now we have a choice as a nation. We can return to the failed economic policies of the past, or we can keep building a stronger future. We can go backward, or we can keep moving forward. And I don't know about you, but I want to move forward. I think America wants to move forward.