A leaner, meaner liberalism?

I’m not qualified to assess the numbers offered in President Obama’s speech on his plan to reduce the federal debt. There’ll be lots of details to come, and lots of commentary on his plan from people far better equipped to crunch the numbers than I am. Plus, whatever we ultimately end up with will no doubt look pretty different from what the president is proposing.

What’s more interesting to me is that he took this opportunity to defend a distinctive liberal vision of government–something that Obama has previously seemed reluctant to do. He’s often appeared to be more interested in playing the role of the above-the-fray pragmatist who wants “results” instead of “politics.”

And yet, in this speech we have passages like this:

From our first days as a nation, we have put our faith in free markets and free enterprise as the engine of America’s wealth and prosperity. More than citizens of any other country, we are rugged individualists, a self-reliant people with a healthy skepticism of too much government.

But there’s always been another thread running through our history -– a belief that we’re all connected, and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation. We believe, in the words of our first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, that through government, we should do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves.

And this:

Part of this American belief that we’re all connected also expresses itself in a conviction that each one of us deserves some basic measure of security and dignity. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, hard times or bad luck, a crippling illness or a layoff may strike any one of us. “There but for the grace of God go I,” we say to ourselves. And so we contribute to programs like Medicare and Social Security, which guarantee us health care and a measure of basic income after a lifetime of hard work; unemployment insurance, which protects us against unexpected job loss; and Medicaid, which provides care for millions of seniors in nursing homes, poor children, those with disabilities. We’re a better country because of these commitments. I’ll go further. We would not be a great country without those commitments.

The idea here is that individualism and free markets are certainly good things, but they need to be tempered by a sense of the common good and mutual responsibility. And the solution to our problems isn’t just to get the government out of the way; government has a positive role to play as an instrument of collective purpose.

Most fundamentally, perhaps, the president is calling the bluff of the House Republicans. They say they care about the debt; he says, okay, but let’s address that without breaking the social compact. It’s an implicit call for them to decide whether they care more about reducing the debt or about catering to rich people by cutting their taxes and hobbling the regulatory state. He’s provided a vision of America that contrasts sharply with the one offered by the GOP (one the president accurately describes as pessimistic).

But Obama isn’t advocating a return to the tax-and-spend liberalism of old:

So this is our vision for America -– this is my vision for America — a vision where we live within our means while still investing in our future; where everyone makes sacrifices but no one bears all the burden; where we provide a basic measure of security for our citizens and we provide rising opportunity for our children.


Indeed, to those in my own party, I say that if we truly believe in a progressive vision of our society, we have an obligation to prove that we can afford our commitments. If we believe the government can make a difference in people’s lives, we have the obligation to prove that it works -– by making government smarter, and leaner and more effective.

Whether Obama’s specific proposals can actually pull off this vision of a more fiscally austere liberalism is another question. (Paul Krugman, who’s been pretty critical of Obama, is cautious but fairly impressed.) Hard-core liberals will certainly complain about the concessions being made to the deficit hawks, and conservatives are likely to oppose anything Obama does. But I have to think that this is a vision that will appeal to a lot of people. I don’t think most people, deep down, really want Ayn Rand-style libertarianism. They believe in programs like Social Security and Medicare, but are also alarmed by what seems to be out-of-control spending. And this fear is used as leverage by those who are opposed to a positive role for government. We’re constantly being told that we “can’t afford” a robust safety net, or decent jobs with good benefits for everyone, or environmental protection, or whatnot. Obama is challenging that mindset with a version of liberalism that aims to be both tender-hearted and hard-headed. That may be just what we need.

(I still hate “win the future” though.)


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