The Obama Synthesis

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"I have political capital. I intend to spend it."

That was, of course, President Bush, the day after his re-election in 2005.

But as I listened to Obama tonight, those words kept running through my mind. It was a tough speech, threading the needle between sobriety about the times we live in and hope, and between the challenges we're facing (particularly in the economic and political environment) and the policies Obama wants to pursue.


Three Democrats before Obama won presidential elections with more than 50.1% of the vote: Andrew Jackson, FDR and LBJ.  This speech is not that different from what Obama promised Americans he'd do during the campaign. It's not a big mystery; Obama's been saying this for months.

Forget the nomenclature of what this speech is supposed to be. It's both grand and pedestrian; grand, from the perspective of history, which is that a Democratic president is making an unapologetic case for activist government, for comprehensive, integrated, values-based expensive solutions to major problems, and, indeed, is asserting that the times themselves require that effort.  Pedestrian -- because -- basically -- the speech reads as a President justifying his plans to expand government.

The key phrase of the speech was, to me, two words: "long-term investments." The spine of the speech holds up this premise -- the examples of Americans who've sacrificed, the history lesson, the implicit criticism of an elections-based worldview, the lensed look at the recent party-hardy past.  From Obama's perspective, the failures of the past -- or the collective failures that mushroomed into today's clouds -- require a plunge into activist government.

Virtually every Republican response has included something like this, which comes from Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) "...However, the President must recognize that demanding higher taxes and more government involvement are not the solutions Americans seek."  Well, the problem for Republicans is that, (a), Americans support Obama's tax plan as laid out during the campaign. (b), Americans are demanding more government involvement. Remember October 2008: the specter of socialism, as dredged up by the GOP, failed. And the problems weren't as bad as they are now! It's not as if the GOP didn't scream the phrase from the mighty mountain -- they had a presidential candidate's platform. In the closing weeks of the presidential campaign, Sen. McCain asked the American people to choose between smaller government of the conservative flavor or liberal government from Obama. Most chose the Obama option, even as the country retained some measure of a partisan cartography.   

An appropriate rebuttal would be to ask why, if Americans are so sold on government, Obama felt the need to justify its intervention in a speech. Well, the answer is that Obama and the Democratic Congress, having expanded the size of government, will now use its powers to reform institutions and systems -- really, the first time a government has done so since either the 1980s or the late 1960s. 

This is really a different era: here's what Obama says to Wall Street tonight:

 "I understand that on any given day, Wall Street may be more comforted by an approach that gives banks bailouts with no strings attached, and that holds nobody accountable for their reckless decisions."

Or, Obama lecturing high school students:

"
I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training.  This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship.  But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma.  And dropping out of high school is no longer an option.  It's not just quitting on yourself, it's quitting on your country - and this country needs and values the talents of every American.  That is why we will provide the support necessary for you to complete college and meet a new goal:  by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.  

Or, Obama promising that the "United States does not torture."

These words are meant to lay the rhetorical grounding for what one might call the Obama Synthesis. No longer will responsibility and fiscal discipline react with spending like matter with anti-matter. To produce equilibrium in government, health care and the economy in the future, the government needs to spend now, and take off the artificial, politically-driven constraints that have generally prevented bolder action.  So -- how to reconcile these opposites? Obama promises transparency and accountability, which are psychological counters to the idea that Big Government is bad in the first place. If government spends the money properly, it will contribute to economic growth, it will instill confidence in the American people, it will keep long-term interest rates in check, and deficits will be smaller, in the end, than what they would be if action isn't taken now.
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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