In reading David Mendell’s excellent political biography of Barack Obama, Obama: From Promise to Power, I ran across several telling passages from his signature speech at Knox College’s 2005 commencement. Mendell, the Chicago Tribune reporter assigned to follow Obama’s political career begining in the state legislature, notes that the speech was important because it “would reaffirm his [Obama’s] liberal tendances and encapsulate the heart of his governing philosophy.” What is that philosophy? The speech is too long to quote in its entirely, but I think two passages provide a good summary of his progressive government views:
At the end of the Civil War, when farmers and their families began moving into the cities to work in the big factories that were sprouting up all across America, we had to decide: Do we do nothing and allow captains of industry and robber barons to run roughshod over the economy and workers by competing to see who can pay the lowest wages at the worst working conditions? Or do we try to make the system work by setting up basic rules for the market, instituting the first public schools, busting up monopolies, letting workers organize into unions? We chose to act, and we rose together. When the irrational exuberance of the Roaring Twenties came crashing down with the stock market, we had to decide: do we follow the call of leaders who would do nothing, or the call of a leader who, perhaps because of his physical paralysis, refused to accept political paralysis? We chose to actÃ¢â?¬â??regulating the market, putting people back to work, expanding bargaining rights to include health care and a secure retirement-and together we rose. When World War II required the most massive homefront mobilization in history and we needed every single American to lend a hand, we had to decide: Do we listen to skeptics who told us it wasn’t possible to produce that many tanks and planes? Or, did we build Roosevelt’s Arsenal for Democracy and grow our economy even further by providing our returning heroes with a chance to go to college and own their own home? Again, we chose to act, and again, we rose together.
The second passage:
Like so much of the American story, once again, we face a choice. Once again, there are those who believe that there isn’t much we can do about this as a nation. That the best idea is to give everyone one big refund on their governmentÃ¢â?¬â??divvy it up by individual portions, in the form of tax breaks, hand it out, and encourage everyone to use their share to go buy their own health care, their own retirement plan, their own child care, their own education, and so on. In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society. But in our past there has been another term for itÃ¢â?¬â??Social DarwinismÃ¢â?¬â??every man or woman for him or herself. It’s a tempting idea, because it doesn’t require much thought or ingenuity. It allows us to say that those whose health care or tuition may rise faster than they can affordÃ¢â?¬â??tough luck. It allows us to say to the Maytag workers who have lost their jobÃ¢â?¬â??life isn’t fair. It let’s us say to the child who was born into povertyÃ¢â?¬â??pull yourself up by your bootstraps. And it is especially tempting because each of us believes we will always be the winner in life’s lottery, that we’re the one who will be the next Donald Trump, or at least we won’t be the chump who Donald Trump says: “You’re fired!” But there is a problem. It won’t work. It ignores our history. It ignores the fact that it’s been government research and investment that made the railways possible and the internet possible. It’s been the creation of a massive middle class, through decent wages and benefits and public schools that allowed us all to prosper. Our economic dependence depended on individual initiative. It depended on a belief in the free market; but it has also depended on our sense of mutual regard for each other, the idea that everybody has a stake in the country, that we’re all in it together and everybody’s got a shot at opportunity. That’s what’s produced our unrivaled political stability. And so if we do nothing in the face of globalization, more people will continue to lose their health care. Fewer kids will be able to afford the diploma you’re about to receive. More companies like United Airlines won’t be able to provide pensions for their employees. And those Maytag workers will be joined in the unemployment line by any worker whose skills can be bought and sold on the global market. So today I’m here to tell you what most of you already know. This is not usÃ¢â?¬â??the option that I just mentioned. Doing nothing. It’s not how our story endsÃ¢â?¬â??not in this country. America is a land of big dreamers and big hopes. It is this hope that has sustained us through revolution and civil war, depression and world war, a struggle for civil and social rights and the brink of nuclear crisis. And it is because our dreamers dreamed that we have emerged from each challenge more united, more prosperous, and more admired than before. So let’s dream. Instead of doing nothing or simply defending 20th century solutions, let’s imagine together what we could do to give every American a fighting chance in the 21st century.
As Mendell summarizes the main message: America is built on a “mutual regard for each other” through “‘collective salvation’ as the surest way to ensure the country’s continued prosperity. And, Obama added, the best means for looking out for each other is through government–strengthening public schools, providing health care to all citizens, devoting time to community service rather than ‘focusing your life solely on making a buck.'”