Obama the Philosopher

Obama the Philosopher

Suddenly, Obama’s making a pretty good case for why Americans should once again care for one another.


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.”

This is a brilliant strategy because it takes a middle ground between asking people to act from pure altruism toward others–as any redistributive scheme must ultimately do–and the purely selfish individualism that fueled the conservative movement. While former selves are not exactly us, they are linked to us through the chain of common memories that makes our life story. Only presently rich Joe is the bearer of the memory of what it was like to be poor, striving Joe. More than anyone else on earth, only Joe, the presently rich plumber, owns the memory of what it was like to be Joe, the poor plumber of the past. So, in the best of worlds Obama’s philosophy envisions, Joe should be sympathetic to helping people just like his former self. This is not news to philosophers, since John Locke described our relationship to our prior selves centuries ago. But it’s a little surprising to hear it on the rope line!

Framing the appeal as sympathy for your former self also invokes the idea of equality of opportunity, rather than equality of result, which conservatives have so effectively rendered illegitimate. Rather than take money from someone who finally made it and give it to people who will never make it, Obama’s “former Joe strategy” suggests liberals are actually making opportunity for the striving would-be plumbing contractors to get to the rich (taxable) place faster.

Finally, this approach is particularly well suited to the voters Democrats are desperate to have back–the striving, white-male working class the Ohio plumber so perfectly represents. So what if the argument doesn’t work with voters who were always rich (and who will be the majority of people taxed under Obama’s scheme)? Trust fund babies, suck it up. There are, of course, people who will not entertain any progressive taxation, regardless of how it is framed. But framing is the business of political revival, and Obama just made a good, fresh move.

To his credit, Obama is also starting to put his voice behind the revival of traditional liberal care for others. Here, too, he has incorporated some of the best insights of post-New Deal philosophy: that some of everyone’s success is not the result of virtue but of luck. People are born talented, they find themselves in the right place at the right time, and so forth. In 1971, long after the New Deal, iconic liberal philosopher John Rawls invoked this insight in his seminal tome, A Theory of Justice, to argue that a person’s talents do not support a moral claim for their reward. Talking to Joe, Obama put it more simply: “folks like me…have worked hard, but frankly also been lucky.”

Putting the call for altruism in personal terms is also useful, in this era of personal politics; billionaire investor Warren Buffett, the sage of Omaha, started the process when he found out his secretary was paying as much taxes as he was, and Obama has picked up the approach, invoking Buffett’s willingness to pay more and putting himself on the line. Obama’s willingness to sacrifice a few marginal dollars was particularly appealing when he offered it in the last debate after John McCain, one of the richest men in the Senate, said that he did not want to pay more taxes himself.

With his customary caution (some would say laggard initiative), Obama may have also sensed an opening for a little old-fashioned distributive justice. So as McCain was flogging him about taxes in the last debate, he finally admitted that he might spread a little wealth. It was hard not to think of FDR’s “economic royalists” when candidate Obama said, “Then Exxon Mobil, which made $12 billion, record profits, over the last several quarters, they can afford to pay a little more so that ordinary families who are hurting out there–they’re trying to figure out how they’re going to afford food, how they’re going to save for their kids’ college education, they need a break.”

In his analysis of the debate, Time‘s Joe Klein suggested that the pundits fully expected the ideological conservative magic to work again, and that is why they initially scored John McCain on the debate so much higher than the polled public did. But polls ultimately showed that the debate watchers weren’t remotely interested in the philosophy of possessive individualism this time around. By massive margins, debate-watchers handed the victory to Barack Obama, who said he wouldn’t mind paying a little more. And with that payment he will buy much more than an electoral victory. He will be laying the groundwork for real political change.

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