Obama’s farewell address: economics and liberty

Posted on February 6, 2017. Filed under: The Founders, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

On we go with post three in our close reading of President Obama’s farewell speech, now available at The New York Times since it has been ousted from whitehouse.gov. President Obama had just spoken about the “call to citizenship” that must reinvigorate each generation of Americans to inspire them to live up to our founding principles.

So that’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional. Not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change, and make life better for those who follow.

Yes, our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard. It has been contentious. Sometimes it has been bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some.

—He begins with a theme dear to our HP hearts, that America is exceptional not because it’s “great” or because the American people are naturally superior to all others, but because of our founding principles. When we live up to those, America is the greatest nation. When we don’t, when we avoid or reject the hard, contentious, and bloody work of democracy, of ensuring liberty and justice for all, when we stop our forward motion, America is not great. Worse than that, it is a perverted parody of what it is supposed to be. Every generation must recommit the nation to the work of real democracy.

If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history — if I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, take out the mastermind of 9-11 — if I had told you that we would win marriage equality and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens — if I had told you all that, you might have said our sights were set a little too high.

But that’s what we did. That’s what you did. You were the change. The answer to people’s hopes and, because of you, by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started.

—If you hold up each of these accomplishments against the litmus test of “does it promote liberty and justice for all?”, then the Obama Administration scores very high. Job creation can be good or bad; restricting immigration to “protect jobs for Americans”, or lowering taxes on the wealthy by calling them “job-creators” and promoting the so-far mythical promise of “trickle-down economics” are bad. But in the case of the Obama Administration, job creation was mostly good.

In 10 days the world will witness a hallmark of our democracy. No, no, no, no, no. The peaceful transfer of power from one freely-elected President to the next. I committed to President-Elect Trump that my administration would ensure the smoothest possible transition, just as President Bush did for me.

—Again, this was a speech in front of a large, live crowd, so when Obama began this section, people who did not support Trump booed. That’s why Obama says “no”. We have been alarmed at the HP by the constant hauling out of the old trope that “nothing represents our democracy better than our peaceful transfer of power”. That peaceful transfer is important, but only when we are not handing the presidency to a would-be tyrant whose stated purpose is to destroy the federal government. Then it is right to protest that hand-off of power, and to not go quietly into the brave new world.

Because it’s up to all of us to make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we still face. We have what we need to do so. We have everything we need to meet those challenges. After all, we remain the wealthiest, most powerful, and most respected nation on earth.

Our youth, our drive, our diversity and openness, our boundless capacity for risk and reinvention means that the future should be ours. But that potential will only be realized if our democracy works. Only if our politics better reflects the decency of our people. Only if all of us, regardless of party affiliation or particular interests help restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now.

—Obama salvages things somewhat by saying even under Trump, we are all still obliged by our founding principles to “make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we face”, and by reminding us that none of our human potential means anything without our democracy—and our decency, which we may define, once again, as “liberty and justice for all.”

And that’s what I want to focus on tonight, the state of our democracy. Understand democracy does not require uniformity. Our founders argued, they quarreled, and eventually they compromised. They expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity. The idea that, for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together, that we rise or fall as one.

There have been moments throughout our history that threatened that solidarity. And the beginning of this century has been one of those times. A shrinking world, growing inequality, demographic change, and the specter of terrorism. These forces haven’t just tested our security and our prosperity, but are testing our democracy as well. And how we meet these challenges to our democracy will determine our ability to educate our kids and create good jobs and protect our homeland.

In other words, it will determine our future. To begin with, our democracy won’t work without a sense that everyone has economic opportunity.

(APPLAUSE)

—Before the president transitions into a list of economic wins, we pause to linger over this section, which speaks for itself. All we would add is that our Founders worked long hours to create a system of government that could not only withstand troubled times, but was built to power through troubled times and create a bulwark against trouble. Our system of government is not weak and outdated and harmful and unable to keep us free. Just the opposite. It’s only when we undermine its workings that we expose ourselves to danger.

And the good news is that today the economy is growing again. Wages, incomes, home values and retirement accounts are all rising again. Poverty is falling again.

(APPLAUSE)

The wealthy are paying a fair share of taxes. Even as the stock market shatters records, the unemployment rate is near a 10-year low. The uninsured rate has never, ever been lower.

Health care costs are rising at the slowest rate in 50 years. And I’ve said, and I mean it, anyone can put together a plan that is demonstrably better than the improvements we’ve made to our health care system, that covers as many people at less cost, I will publicly support it.

(APPLAUSE)

Because that, after all, is why we serve. Not to score points or take credit. But to make people’s lives better.

(APPLAUSE)

But, for all the real progress that we’ve made, we know it’s not enough. Our economy doesn’t work as well or grow as fast when a few prosper at the expense of a growing middle class, and ladders for folks who want to get into the middle class.

—In other words, when you have liberty and justice for all, the economy improves. As he goes on to elaborate:

That’s the economic argument. But stark inequality is also corrosive to our democratic idea. While the top 1 percent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many of our families in inner cities and in rural counties have been left behind.

The laid off factory worker, the waitress or health care worker who’s just barely getting by and struggling to pay the bills. Convinced that the game is fixed against them. That their government only serves the interest of the powerful. That’s a recipe for more cynicism and polarization in our politics.

Now there’re no quick fixes to this long-term trend. I agree, our trade should be fair and not just free. But the next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good middle class jobs obsolete.

And so we’re going to have to forge a new social compact to guarantee all our kids the education they need.

(APPLAUSE)

To give workers the power…

(APPLAUSE)

… to unionize for better wages.

(CHEERS)

To update the social safety net to reflect the way we live now.

(APPLAUSE)

And make more reforms to the tax code so corporations and the individuals who reap the most from this new economy don’t avoid their obligations to the country that’s made their very success possible.

(CHEERS)

(APPLAUSE)

We can argue about how to best achieve these goals. But we can’t be complacent about the goals themselves. For if we don’t create opportunity for all people, the disaffection and division that has stalled our progress will only sharpen in years to come.

—Complacency is indeed the enemy of a representative democracy in a world with very few representative democracies.

Next time: tough talk on race

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President Obama’s Farewell Speech continues, despite the best efforts of the Trump Administration

Posted on January 20, 2017. Filed under: Bill of Rights, Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , |

So now we continue with our close reading of the Obama farewell speech, despite the Trump Administration removing the transcript from its location at whitehouse.gov/farewell. Along with pages on LGBT rights, climate change, health care, and civil rights.

Our transcript source is now The New York Times, for as long as it is allowed to post it.

We left off in part 1 with President Obama talking about his time as a grassroots political organizer in Chicago:

Now this is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it.

After eight years as your president, I still believe that. And it’s not just my belief. It’s the beating heart of our American idea — our bold experiment in self-government.

—Those last two sentences are so critically important: we must participate in our democracy in order to uphold it. It doesn’t matter what kind of change you want. You have to act for it, and support others who take action.

That action should be informed by nothing other than our founding principles:

of due process before the law…

of equality of opportunity…

of no discrimination based on race, creed, or sex…

…of liberty and justice for all. Any change, any movement, any one that does not support these things is un-American. So erasing gay people and non-white people is not supporting our democracy. It is un-American.

It’s the conviction that we are all created equal, endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It’s the insistence that these rights, while self-evident, have never been self-executing; that We, the People, through the instrument of our democracy, can form a more perfect union.

What a radical idea, the great gift that our Founders gave to us. The freedom to chase our individual dreams through our sweat, and toil, and imagination — and the imperative to strive together as well, to achieve a common good, a greater good.

—These founding principles are indeed a gift and an imperative. We have to work to maintain them—they are not self-perxetuating. We will have them for as long as we want them. When Americans top wanting everyone in this country to be treated as equal, our democracy will end.

For 240 years, our nation’s call to citizenship has given work and purpose to each new generation. It’s what led patriots to choose republic over tyranny, pioneers to trek west, slaves to brave that makeshift railroad to freedom.

It’s what pulled immigrants and refugees across oceans and the Rio Grande. It’s what pushed women to reach for the ballot. It’s what powered workers to organize. It’s why GIs gave their lives at Omaha Beach and Iwo Jima; Iraq and Afghanistan — and why men and women from Selma to Stonewall were prepared to give theirs as well.

—All of those examples in the second paragraph are concrete manifestations of “liberty and justice for all.” All of the people mentioned are true Americans.

So that’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional. Not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change, and make life better for those who follow.

—It would seem the president had been reading our blog! Especially our About page.

When we face people saying they want to make America great again, we must ask them what they mean by that. Whose lives will be made better? What should be changed? What exactly isn’t great? How can we solve problems by expanding civil rights rather than curtailing them?

We’ll leave off here for now. Next time, the ridiculous red herring of “the peaceful transfer of power.”

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Trump, protest, and being “fair”

Posted on November 17, 2016. Filed under: Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

In the days since the election, we’ve heard a few consistent messages:

—We need to come together and support Trump because the peaceful transfer of power is crucial to our democracy;

—We need to put aside our differences and unite as a nation;

—We need to acknowledge the other side and not automatically assume that anyone across the political aisle is evil.

The real issue at the heart of these three messages is relativism: there is no absolute, objective truth, like “Trump is bad” or “Democrats are good”. We have to support Trump’s election because accepting him, relative to the chaos that the failure of a peaceful transfer of power would bring, is necessary.We have to give every argument a fair hearing. One man’s meat is another man’s poison.

We’d like to challenge this relativism. One senses that many Americans would like to challenge it, feeling that there is something different about this situation, that rejecting Trump is not just petty party politics but a way to take a stand for justice. They are right.

What is our basis for saying this, our objective truth? Well, in this context, there is only one objective truth to turn to. We are Americans. We were educated so that we can understand how our government was framed, how it is supposed to work, and what its goals are—both literal, as in what tasks it is supposed to perform, and more figurative, as in what impact it is meant to have, what kind of nation and people it is meant to create.

Our federal government, as described in the Constitution, was created to balance power between three branches of government. Two of those branches are representative, in that we vote people into their offices. The judiciary is appointed by our representatives. The executive branch handles foreign policy and is the commander-in-chief of our armed forces. The legislatures creates laws. The judiciary reviews laws to be sure they are constitutional, and amends or invalidates laws that are not.

Our Constitution states that the goal of our nation is to offer liberty and justice to all, and to protect citizens’ right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It says that we can only protect those rights for all if we offer them to all (that took a few amendments, to extend those rights to non-whites and women, but it got done). It says, in the Bill of Rights, that we have immense personal liberty to worship as we please, speak and write as we please, and generally do as we please—so long as we do not infringe on someone else’s rights by doing that. It’s a balancing act in which our right to liberty is checked by other’s rights to liberty.

Fulfilling these terms has led our judiciary and Congress to pass laws guaranteeing equality of opportunity; laws that give every American as level a playing field for success as we can, through public education that is mixed and equal, through sexual harassment laws, anti-discrimination laws, and more.

These are the objective truths of American government, our Constitution, and our goals as a nation.

Therefore, these are the standards by which we must measure any U.S. citizen. We judge presidents by them, we judge members of Congress by them, we judge state and local officials by them. We judge news outlets and social organizations by them.

And so we must judge Trump by them. When he says he will punish women who have abortions, when he says natural-born American citizens whose parents are not from the U.S. are biased and unworthy to serve in public office, when he says he doesn’t know if the Ku Klux Klan is a hate group, when he says he engages in sexual assault, when he says he will get rid of governmental organizations like the EPA that keep our air and water safe because they hurt big business—in all these cases, he is violating our principles of government and the goals of the American nation.

When his supporters say, as we heard many say over the past weeks and months, that a vote for Trump is a vote for the “angry white man”, and for white supremacy, they are violating liberty and justice for all. When his supporters say Muslims should not be allowed to live in America, they violate the First Amendment.

And most of all, when his supporters say what they want most is for Trump to destroy the federal government, they are striking at the very heart of our nation.

So there is an objective reason for Americans to oppose Trump. He opposes America.

Peaceful transfer of power is important in a democracy—but we have to put the democracy first. We will peacefully transfer power to Trump, but we will not peacefully give him the power to destroy our democracy once he is in office. If all we preserve of our democracy is transfer of power, we don’t really have anything left.

We do not need to come together and support Trump. We need to come together to do what we can to oppose him when he violates our Constitution and our laws and our heritage, and support him when he does not.

We cannot put aside our differences with those who would destroy the American way of life as expressed in our Constitution and system of law. We have to try to get them to see the error of their ways, not say that their opinions are equally valid.

Anyone who wants to destroy this nation’s system of government  and commitment to liberty and justice for all is, in our opinion, either evil or extremely dangerous. They cannot be allowed to carry out their mission on the basis of “fairness”. This is not a question of which political party you belong to. It’s a question of whether you hold the American commitment to liberty and justice for all dear.

This is the only objective truth we can call upon when discussing politics, the only way that does not degenerate into relativism. It’s the yardstick we must use as we move forward.

 

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