Sunday, January 25, 2009

All this we can do. All this we will do.

President Barack Obama has been accused of being a celebrity and a poet, but we now know that his ambitions for our country go beyond personal theatrics and lyrics. In his first week in office, the President signed executive orders banning his aides from lobbying any executive agency for the lifetime of his administration, as well as ending the Bush administration’s policy against the release of presidential documents in a move to signal his administration’s commitment to transparency. He also signed orders to close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, and to order that all interrogation techniques should follow the instructions laid out in the Army Field Manual.

These are sweeping changes, even more tangible than they are symbolic. But we already saw this coming from his startling departure from inaugural protocol that we witnessed last week. No, not the Chief Justice’s oath-of-office gaffe, but rhetorical patterns so stark and yet so barely noticed that it reveals the national mood in which we are in, and the transformative agenda of the President.

In the long history of Inaugural addresses, President Obama’s address was a sharper repudiation of the previous administration’s policies than any we have seen in our lifetime. For a rhetorical genre traditionally dedicated to the celebration of continuity, shared values, and unity, President Obama’s jabs at the previous administration stretched the boundaries of inaugural protocol. He spoke of the triumph of “hope over fear” - a reference to the tactics he perceived the Republicans used in previous elections. He rejected the artificial choice between “our safety and our ideals,” an indictment of water-boarding and Guantanamo bay. He promised to “restore science to its rightful place,” implying that science has been relegated to the backburner in recent times. Even in his statement to foreign nations, he made clear that “we are ready to lead once more,” implying that we haven't in a while. Usually, Presidents have appealed to Scripture to articulate timeless, and unifying truths, but President Obama used Scripture to chastise the political knaves of the past, saying, “the time has come to set aside childish things.” (1 Corinthians 13:11)

So this is not a president bound even by the time-honored traditions of the Inaugural Address. He would not even dwell on oratorical flourishes – and the Inaugural Address is just the place to celebrate and rehearse our shared civil religious values – even though we know that he is perfectly capable of rendering it. President Obama does not care for memorable words which can be carved on monuments, but words which will brace a country for the “gathering clouds and raging storms” in the horizon. Campaigning orator Obama is no more. Now he is President.

Like all great presidents before him, Obama is attempting to rewrite even the parameters by which we disagree with each other so that he can carry the country forward according to his script. “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works” he proclaimed. Obama will not sanction these old-fashion antitheses. They are “worn out dogmas” and “stale political arguments,” binary conceptions of Left versus Right that will necessarily leave him with only one half of the national majority. Just like Lincoln redefined the meaning of federalism, and FDR redefined the meaning of liberalism, Obama wants to radically reconstruct our understanding of government, to create a new ideological synthesis. He intends, quite simply and perhaps naively, to build a government that works. And he is confident that he will succeed: “All this we can do. All this we will do.” These bold words parallel the cadence of the Jewish people responding to Moses’ rendition of the 10 Commandments: “All that the Lord hath spoken, we will do.” (Exodus 19:8) They do not exemplify pragmatic liberalism or rhetorical bipartisanship, but aggressive and ambitious leadership.

If the Inaugural address is a ritualistic celebration of democratic continuity, President Obama’s departure from its genre imperatives reveals a distinct desire not for transition but transformation. The fact that his recriminations and boldness have received little notice suggest, for better or for worse, that the American people are pliable, ready, yearning for leadership. I hope President Obama handles this trust with abundant care.

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Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Arc of a Pendulum

Not all elections were created equal.

In 1800, Thomas Jefferson took his newly formed Jeffersonian-Republican party to victory on an anti-Federalist platform, arguing convincingly that George Washington and John Adams (with the Alien and Sedition Acts) had over-centralized power in the federal government.

In 1828, Andrew Jackson stood against the National Bank and federal funds for internal improvements in his contest with John Quincy Adams. The election inaugurated Jacksonian democracy and an anti-Jacksonian Whig/Republican party that would, together, create the oldest surviving two-party system in the history of the world.

The central question at the ballot box in 1860 was not slavery, but the states' rights to secede in order to preserve the peculiar institution. This election was the purest expression of the Federalist and anti-Federalist debate of the Founding generation and it would establish the Republican party as the dominant party in American politics for decades to come.

In 1896, Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan told his fellow democrats as well as members of the Populist party that he would not allow the industrial north and the coasts to force the gold standard on silver supporters, mostly farmers in the agricultural south and midwest. McKinley relied heavily on finance, railroads, and industry for his support and cemented the Republicans as the party of business.

The era of hands-off goverment came to an end in 1932, when FDR would offer a new deal for the American people, promising the helping hand of government when before the people waited for the invisible hand of the economy.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan declared that government was not the solution to our problems but the problem itslf. The era of big government and of the welfare queen was over, as was the New Deal coalition.

Each of these elections heralded the first ("Revolution of 1800"), second (Jacksonian Democracy), third (Civil War), fourth ("System of 1896"), fifth ("New Deal"), and sixth (Reagan Revolution) party systems in American history. They were characterized by relatively high voter participation or turnout and an enduring switch in partisan loyalties. The issues may have changed, but the central axis of debate has always been the same in each of these critical elections: what is the proper and constitutional role of the federal government? The is a question as old as our constitution, and one that triggers an electoral revolution every 3 decades or so. In the grand sweep of history, there are no winners and no losers, just the arc of a pendulum.

This year, John McCain has campaigned on a message of cleaning up the corruption and pork-barrel spending in Washington and Barack Obama has campaigned on the promise of what citizens can do for their country and what government can do in return for them. Obama has chastized McCain for saying that "the fundamentals of our economy are strong" while McCain has condemned Obama for trying to "spread the wealth." More than any election since 1980, this is, once again, an election about whether government is the solution to our problems or the problem itself. "Yes, we can" implies "No, we haven't yet." If Barack Obama wins on Tuesday, the Democratic majority in all branches of government will likely chant, "now, we will."

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