These addresses are only rarely informative or provide new policy making substance. But because they are so brief and because they are addressed to an imagined audience that is at least national in scale, containing not only journalists and pundits deeply sensitive to the minutest signals (both real and fanciful) but also everyday citizens who might have only a general sense of the issues at stake, containing not only partisan supporters whose energies are being enlisted but also detractors whose fears and suspicions are being allayed, these addresses are profoundly important indicators of the rhetorical framing which drives the creation, promotion, and implementation of policy, they are like iceberg tips suggesting vast cultural machineries in play elsewhere engaged in the ongoing construction of the political mass consciousness of the possible and the important.
After generations of ineptitude on this score, Democrats under Obama have been wresting government as a site of collective awareness and aspiration from the discursive precincts to which Movement Republicanism and neoliberalism have confined it, subtly seeking to undermine the facile slogans that would identify "free men [sic] and free markets" and conjure of fantasies of "big government standing in the way of liberty" and in so doing providing stealthy rationales for the dismantlement of democracy and the implementation of neo-feudal corporate-military plutocracy.
The crucial move for Democrats is to insist that freedom depends on fairness and then to insist not only on the possibility as such of good government of by and for the people but on the indispensability of such good government to this fairness on which true freedom depends. Notice this sentence from the address: "And we’re going to keep working -- to recover every job lost to the recession; to build an economy where hard work and responsibility are once again rewarded; to restore an America where everyone has a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules." Especially this last phrase is endlessly repeated by this President, and that is a crucial rhetorical effort others are picking up as well. The reiteration of this succession of notions "everyone has a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules" is inculcating a set of associations that is constructing a moral mass consciousness in which equitable and democratic values and projects will flourish and which will inoculate citizens against the facile seductions of parochial short-term selfish gain which ultimately drive anti-democratic values and projects of the sort Movement Republicans prefer: this set of associations fills the empty space of libertopian liberty with the collaborative efforts and hopes of democratic citizens in the institutional context of equal recourse to law for us all.
Notice that hard work is not only praised here, but that the praise of hard work through the implementation of equitable institutions is itself foregrounded as an instance of that praiseworthy hard work. These supportive self re-enforcing re-iterations do enormous constructive work rhetorically, especially as they assume the character of commonsense utterances and habits of thought. Condemning to the contrary the infantile libertopian notion of liberty to the socially injurious encouragement of a reckless and risky and fraud-prone attitude of "anything goes" is no less essential to this effort.
The opening frame of the address -- like most of its official communications -- situates the administration's first term in the context of "an historic economic crisis" which he immediately insists was "caused by breathtaking irresponsibility on the part of some on Wall Street who treated our financial system like a casino" (selfish irresponsible risk-taking with other people's money is not the same as work) which "cost our economy millions of jobs, hurt middle-class families, and left taxpayers holding the bag" (those who are responsible, those who do work for a living are the ones who suffer from this selfish irresponsible risk-taking with other people's money). "[W]e’ve put in place Wall Street reform with smarter, tougher, commonsense rules that serve one primary purpose: to prevent a crisis like that from ever happening again." Setting aside the righteous wonk inside you who knows Wall Street reforms are inadequate and who also knows that the devil is in the implementation details and that the skirmishes over implementation usually favor elite-incumbent actors with the resources to shape the substantial debates, notice first that the usual appeal to the fearful conservative of the "law and order" narrative is being re-articulated into a case for good government in the service not of hierarchy and incumbency but of equity-in-diversity. This is an appropriation of a longstanding Republican frame to which they have always been vulnerable: "Libertopia for me authoritarianism for thee" is a paradoxical conjunction that has always been a conceptual land mine for Movement Republicanism, but one which the American professional left (pundits and administrators) rarely if ever pressured in the service of the articulation of a better more democratic vision. (I suspect this was because the class position of so many of these pundits and administrators -- unlike majorities of people who actually work for a living who through the long night of Movement Republicanism always pined for far more progressive policy outcomes than their so-called official representatives entertained -- inclined them to a profitable complacency about such matters before the emergence of p2p networks suddenly re-democratized, if only partially and impermanently, public discourse.) Come what may, the Obama administration and a host of new Democratic media institutions have been engaged in this effort lately, finally, and the very predictable empowerment of democratic commonsense is following upon that work.
It is also crucial to note that Obama is forthrightly naming the enemy here: "Republicans in Congress and an army of financial industry lobbyists have actually been waging an all-out battle to delay, defund, and dismantle Wall Street reform." Yes, yes, financial industry lobbyists also include Democratic offices in their itineraries and often include Democratic operatives in their rosters, but the leader of the Democratic party is identifying these people as the problem and not part of the solution here and if what is wanted is an organized force defining itself on those terms it seems rather flabbergasting to focus more on its failures to live up to that self-image than on supporting its efforts to live up to that self-image, especially when the only alternative is instead to shore up that organized force which explicitly and even triumphantly champions contrary values and outcomes. The politics of campaigning as against those of governing, that is to say the politics of prevailing over opponents as the outcome rather than compromising with opponents for best outcomes, have always provided Obama with a terrain that encourages his rhetoric into its most inspirational clarity. Given the unprecedented monolithic obstructionism and rarely precedented depth and intensity of their hostility to this President, Republicans have created an environment in which it might have seemed that even after the campaign the terrain provided grounds for little more than this kind of clarity -- and, it is too true, not only have the Republicans settled into a kind of permanent campaigning and culture war stance entirely disconnected to governing, but so too many liberals have seemed to pine for a politics of symbolic gestures from this administration rather than the actually accomplished reforms -- and although reasonable people can differ about how long and how much the President has been open or seemed to be open to compromise with the current crop of anti-governmental anti-civilizational Republicans, I personally think it is right for politics and rhetoric to reflect the changed contexts of campaigning and governing as this administration has (sometimes less effectually than might be wanted) done and I think it is right to celebrate the many regulatory and administrative and civil rights accomplishments of Obama, especially in its partnership with the 111th "Do Something" Congress which this shift facilitated.
It is in the conclusion to his short address that I find myself most at odds with the rhetoric of the President. My difference is probably more one of emphasis than of substance, but I am not sure this is so. Obama declares: "I believe the free market is one of the greatest forces for progress in human history; that businesses are the engine of growth; that risk-takers and innovators should be celebrated. But I also believe that at its best, the free market has never been a license to take whatever you want, however you can get it. Alongside our entrepreneurial spirit and rugged individualism, America only prospers when we meet our obligations to one another; and to future generations." It is easy to see what the President is doing here. Earlier I showed how Obama's rhetoric seeks to appropriate the longstanding Republican "law and order" narrative but now in the service of a progressive defense of good government against Republican anti-governmentalism, and especially a defense of that good government which would police the misconduct of those elite incumbent bad actors who tend to ally most conspicuous with Republicans against the interests of people who work for a living. Just so, here he seeks to appropriate the Republican "free market" narrative but now in the service of a progress that is actually progressive, that is to say actually sustainable, equitable, diverse. Contrary to the President's insistence that "the free market has never been a license to take whatever you want, however you can get it" we well know, of course, that what has passed for "the free market" (that never natural always contingent congeries of laws, norms, and material affordances) from generation to generation has usually been precisely a license for the abuse of majorities by incumbent elites. Rather than assume Obama is wrong, I assume instead that Obama is engaged in the high-stakes effort to rhetorically re-write "the free market" in the image of something more righteous. I heartily approve such efforts. What worries me is that I see little likelihood of this effort succeeding so long as Obama continues to insist that "risk-takers and innovators should be celebrated" most of all and then, even worse, yokes together what he calls "our entrepreneurial spirit and rugged individualism."
Of course, this is a short address, the subject of which is far more topical (the JP Morgan Chase disgrace) than it is some kind of primer on new Democratic economic framing, and so it might seem to be too much to ask for more from this piece. I will simply point out that even old school liberal rhetoric always knew never to celebrate "innovation" without including in such celebrations a reference to "equal opportunity" and a "level playing field" -- and also let me add that I personally prefer it when Obama draws on the intuition "I am my brother's keeper" rather than genuflecting to the complete idiotic nonsense of "rugged individualism," even if he deploys the term a little ironically (as I hope but am not sure he is here). But deeper than this, I think the effort to appropriate entrepreneurialism in the service of progressive democratization will take not only an insistence on equal opportunity as indispensable to any real support of innovation and a reminder of our ineradicable interdependence as indispensable to any realistic understanding of individualism, but will also require an insistence that everyday people following the rules and working for a living and hoping to leave the world a little better, fairer, cleaner, safer for the next generation are the crucial figures driving the economy as well as history. Perhaps as over-achieving a-type personalities for the most part (and this is palpably true of President Obama), Presidents are the people we can least trust to recognize and celebrate who the real protagonists of history are. But certainly it has never been more important to realize that it is the hard work and purchasing power of everyday people that are the real "job creators" in modern societies, not celebrity CEOs and a-list faces for all of whom fame and fortune has been more appropriative and accidental than they usually can admit to themselves if they want to enjoy the ride they're on.
Transcript of the Address:
For the past three and a half years, we’ve been fighting our way back from an historic economic crisis -- one caused by breathtaking irresponsibility on the part of some on Wall Street who treated our financial system like a casino. Not only did that behavior nearly destroy the financial system -- it cost our economy millions of jobs, hurt middle-class families, and left taxpayers holding the bag. Since then, we’ve recovered taxpayer dollars that were used to stabilize troubled banks. And we’ve put in place Wall Street reform with smarter, tougher, commonsense rules that serve one primary purpose: to prevent a crisis like that from ever happening again. And yet, for the past two years, too many Republicans in Congress and an army of financial industry lobbyists have actually been waging an all-out battle to delay, defund, and dismantle Wall Street reform. Recently, we’ve seen why we can’t let that happen. We found out that a big mistake at one of our biggest banks resulted in a two billion dollar loss. While that bank can handle a loss of that size, other banks may not have been able to. And without Wall Street reform, we could have found ourselves with the taxpayers once again on the hook for Wall Street’s mistakes.
That’s why it’s so important that Members of Congress stand on the side of reform, not against it; because we can’t afford to go back to an era of weak regulation and little oversight; where excessive risk-taking on Wall Street and a lack of basic oversight in Washington nearly destroyed our economy. We can’t afford to go back to that brand of ‘you’re-on-your-own’ economics. Not after the American people have worked so hard to come back from this crisis. We’ve got to keep moving forward. We’ve got to finish the job of implementing this reform and putting these rules in place. These new rules say that, if you’re a big bank or financial institution, you now have to hold more cash on hand so that if you make a bad decision you pay for it, not the taxpayers. You have to write out a “living will” that details how you’ll be wound down if you do fail. The new law takes away big bonuses and paydays from failed CEOs, while giving shareholders a say on executive salaries. And for the first time in our nation’s history, we have in place a consumer watchdog whose sole job is to look out for working families by protecting them from deceptive and unfair practices.
So unless you run a financial institution whose business model is built on cheating consumers, or making risky bets that could damage the whole economy, you have nothing to fear from Wall Street reform. Yes, it discourages big banks and financial institutions from making risky bets with taxpayer-insured money. And it encourages them to do things that actually help the economy -- like extending loans to entrepreneurs with good ideas, to middle-class families who want to buy a home, to students who want to pursue higher education. That’s what Wall Street reform is all about -- making this economy stronger for you. And we’re going to keep working -- to recover every job lost to the recession; to build an economy where hard work and responsibility are once again rewarded; to restore an America where everyone has a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules.
I believe the free market is one of the greatest forces for progress in human history; that businesses are the engine of growth; that risk-takers and innovators should be celebrated. But I also believe that at its best, the free market has never been a license to take whatever you want, however you can get it. Alongside our entrepreneurial spirit and rugged individualism, America only prospers when we meet our obligations to one another; and to future generations. If you agree with me, let your Member of Congress know. Tell them to spend less time working to undermine rules that are there to protect the economy, and spend more time actually working to strengthen the economy. Thanks and have a great weekend.