Barack Obama is finally telling Americans why enacting his economic programs is the right thing to do. Not just prudent, not just efficient, but right. For a long time in this country, talk about what’s right has been the monopoly of the right. But Obama’s election will be little more than Bill Clinton’s third term unless it sparks an overall revival of liberalism, and no political movement revives without core beliefs about what’s right. After thirty years of conservative, “greed is good” political philosophy, Obama faces the daunting task of explaining to Americans why they should once again care for one another.
“Hotheads” like ex-Senator Gary Hart and columnist E.J. Dionne have been urging Obama to think deeply about this for months. In June, Hart wrote: “Democrats, meanwhile, have yet to produce a coherent ideological framework to replace the New Deal, despite an eight-year experiment in “triangulation” and an undefined “centrism.” Once elected, Barack Obama would have a rare opportunity to define a new Democratic Party. He could preside over the beginning of a new political cycle that, if relevant to the times, would dominate American politics for three or four decades to come.” Dionne thinks “an ideology, and a way of doing business stand discredited to a large majority of Americans…. Bush’s blunders have opened up new possibilities.”
For an agonizingly long time, it looked as if Obama was not going to produce a new way of thinking. In the first debate with John McCain, Obama stuck to his centrist script of trying to sound like nothing more than a kinder, gentler tax-cutting conservative, assuring his listeners that “95 percent of you will get a tax cut.” It looked as if the economic debate was going to focus at most on whether federal taxing and spending would stimulate the economy, not whether it would make a more just society.
But as the magnitude of the conservative failure has become apparent to all but the densest Americans, Obama the philosopher emerged, with an intriguing combination of new New Deal and old New Deal thinking. The new idea is that people who are now successful should care for the ones left behind, because they were once the left-behind themselves.
Obama floated this idea for the first time in the exchange with the now-infamous Joe the Plumber. Why should he pay taxes just as he became successful? Joe asked. When Obama suggested the tax increase, at $900, was fairly small, Joe was having none of it: “I mean, I’ve worked hard. I’m a plumber. I work ten to twelve hours a day and I’m buying this company and I’m going to continue working that way. I’m getting taxed more and more while fulfilling the American dream.”
Franklin Roosevelt had one answer for people like Joe when he made the speech that announced the New Deal: “We know that individual liberty and individual happiness mean nothing unless both are ordered in the sense that one man’s meat is not another man’s poison.” The truth is that Joe will have to contribute $900 so “another man” will not be poisoned (or starve, as FDR put it a little earlier). But Obama is reluctant to say that we are all in the American enterprise together. That would be socialism, right? Instead, he made a deft move, telling Joe that he should consider his extra taxes like a transfer not to some stranger, but to his own, former, less successful self: “Over the last fifteen years, when you weren’t making $250,000, you would have been given a tax cut from me, so you’d actually have more money, which means you would have saved more, which means you would have gotten to the point where you could build your small business quicker than under the current tax code…. Put yourself back ten years ago.”