Obama’s Theory of Government

I have been a reluctant supporter of Barack Obama throughout much of this year’s election season. But watching the Illinois senator’s acceptance speech on television in August, I was convinced that my reluctance may just be misplaced.

Forget the peripheral stuff—the delivery, the massive crowd and even larger television audience. Forget the feud between Obama’s camp and the Clintons, a schism that still threatens to derail his candidacy.

Let’s look at what he actually said.

Obama opened with a harsh critique of the Bush era, hitting on each of the current president’s major failures to paint a picture of a nation heading down the wrong road—war and lost international influence, increased joblessness and stagnant wages, increased bills and fuel costs and the collapse of the housing market and increase in the number of foreclosures.

As Obama said during his acceptance, America is “better than these last eight years.”

Criticism of Obama has centered on these kinds of thematic statements. Obama, it has been said, is great with the soaring rhetoric, offering a message of hope and change that is rather empty. It is one of the chief arguments that had been made by Sen. Hillary Clinton and then picked up by the McCain campaign.

The storyline—and it cannot be underestimated just how much the news media is beholden to its simplistic storylines—always was a bit of an invention. How else to explain the sometimes rancorous debates between Obama and Clinton over the minutiae of their health care plans, among other issues?

That said, the media narrative was in place and Obama had to deal with it, which he did to great reviews.

There are a number of ways to view the speech, but what struck me more than anything else—more than the policy specifics and more than the obvious efforts to woo disaffected Clinton voters (another major goal)—was that the Democratic nominee used his speech to define his vision of government.

The mission of government is to keep the “American promise,” he said. Each American has “the freedom to make of our own lives what we will, but that we also have obligations to treat each other with dignity and respect.”

His vision includes a vibrant market, but one tempered by responsibility. “(B)usinesses,” he said, “should live up to their responsibilities to create American jobs, to look out for American workers, and play by the rules of the road.”

Or, to put it more simply: Businesses that do not meet the responsibilities will have to deal with government oversight.

And, while “government cannot solve all our problems,” he believe that the American promise requires that it do “that which we cannot do for ourselves: protect us from harm and provide every child a decent education; keep our water clean and our toys safe; invest in new schools, and new roads, and science, and technology.

“Our government should work for us, not against us,” he continued. “It should help us, not hurt us. It should ensure opportunity not just for those with the most money and influence, but for every American who’s willing to work.

That’s the promise of America, the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation, the fundamental belief that I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper.”

It is a theory of government that says we are only as good as we treat other people and it is government’s job to act as our surrogate.

It is within this framework that Obama’s rhetoric of hope must be understood. For the most part, that rhetoric is made concrete by his policy proposals. Not every progressive is going to agree with everything – I certainly don’t. But his proposed tax cuts for the middle class and small businesses—to be paid for with a reversal of the Bush tax cuts for upper-income folks—seem sensible at a time of economic meltdown. And he is pushing for alternative fuels—though his openness to nuclear power is difficult to understand.

He’s also promising equal pay for equal work and health care for all — something that the Republicans do not view as important.

Ultimately, he made the strong case that he best understands the troubles we are facing and that the Republicans do not, cannot and never will in a way that neither John Kerry nor Al Gore did.

Make no mistake. Obama is essentially a centrist, but a centrist with a progressive view of the world, one that—at least in his rhetoric—sounds as if he is at least willing to listen to the people to his left. That in itself would be a welcome change in direction for the nation.

Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and The Cranbury Press in central New Jersey. Email See his blog, Channel Surfing, at

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2008

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