Race and the “hardworking middle class”: Obama’s Farewell Address

Posted on February 20, 2017. Filed under: Economics, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , , |

Hello and welcome to post four 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. We left off in our last post promising to get to President Obama’s frank address of race, so let’s begin.

There’s a second threat to our democracy. And this one is as old as our nation itself.

After my election there was talk of a post-racial America. And such a vision, however well intended, was never realistic. Race remains a potent…

(APPLAUSE)

… and often divisive force in our society.

Now I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were 10 or 20 or 30 years ago, no matter what some folks say.

(APPLAUSE)

You can see it not just in statistics. You see it in the attitudes of young Americans across the political spectrum. But we’re not where we need to be. And all of us have more work to do.

—The last comment is important. Older members of the HP who describe their childhoods in the 1970s to teenager today may as well be talking about another planet. While it’s true that hidden racism is no better than outright racism, it’s easy to forget what outright racism represents: a consensus that there’s nothing wrong with it. Overt racism is a sign that people feel comfortable expressing racism; they don’t expect anyone to challenge or reproach them. In America 50 years ago, it was okay to be openly, outrageously racist. In America today, it isn’t, because those 50 years were spent stripping away the social justifications of and legal supports for racism. The biological arguments for racism, the “oh come on, it’s just a joke” arguments for racism, the “this is the way it’s always been” arguments, the “this is how God intended” arguments—all were at last relentlessly, righteously assaulted as the nation pushed to live up to its mandate of liberty and justice for all.

But, as the president says, that doesn’t mean racism ended. Racism will never end. It’s part of human nature. And that means the fight against racism must never end. We have to rise above our nature. All of us will always have more work to do, but if we do it, we will get closer to being free of racism, as close as it is possible to come. We cannot afford to have the work of the last 50 years undone by anti-Americans who want to go back to the old days. Their mythical view of an all-white America that was happy and strong and rich would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous to this nation.

If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.

—This single sentence says so much. Here the president is frank about how neo-conservatives and white supremacist/fascists do indeed frame every economic issue. This began with Reagan. His 1984 “Morning again in America” ad (you can find it easily on YouTube) was 90 seconds of showing only white Americans while a voiceover talked about hardworking people buying houses and getting married and thriving. (Yes, for exactly two seconds a black and a Latino child are shown watching an American flag being raised. But apparently when they grow up these non-white children will not contribute to America’s wealth, strength, and happiness.) Since then, “hardworking” and “middle-class” have come to be code words for “white” and “native-born”. Anyone who isn’t hardworking and middle-class is a non-white criminal. In the last presidential campaign, these ceased to be unspoken codes, as neo-conservatives and fascists and other Trump supporters applauded his description of Mexicans, Muslims, and other non-white immigrants as criminals, and stood by Trump’s refusal to call the KKK a hate/terrorist/white supremacist group.

If we’re unwilling to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don’t look like us, we will diminish the prospects of our own children — because those brown kids will represent a larger and larger share of America’s workforce.

(APPLAUSE)

And we have shown that our economy doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Last year, incomes rose for all races, all age groups, for men and for women.

So if we’re going to be serious about race going forward, we need to uphold laws against discrimination — in hiring, and in housing, and in education, and in the criminal justice system.

That is what our Constitution and highest ideals require.

—A loud minority of Americans want a zero-sum game. They feel that any and every advance by people unlike them (non-white, immigrant) comes only at their expense. If anyone else wins, it’s because they lose. That’s why they want to repeal laws against discrimination, ironically by claiming those laws discriminate against whites/white men/native-born white Americans. These people are Americans in name only, as they would violate our Constitution to enrich and (so they think) protect themselves.

But laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change. It won’t change overnight. Social attitudes oftentimes take generations to change. But if our democracy is to work the way it should in this increasingly diverse nation, then each one of us need to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

For blacks and other minority groups, that means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face. Not only the refugee or the immigrant or the rural poor or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic, and cultural, and technological change.

We have to pay attention and listen.

—It’s hard to feel a lot of compassion for white men in western society. They still have every advantage when it comes to being educated, hired, well-paid, catered to politically, and identified as the “average person”. White men do still have all the advantages, even after 50 years of economic, cultural, and technological change. Again, it’s the zero-sum mentality at work: any change for white men is seen as an alarm bell that the God-ordained proper world order is being destroyed. Not all white men feel this way. But the ones who do should only be paid attention and listened to as part of an effort to re-educate them to be Americans.

For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ’60s; that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment that our founders promised.

(APPLAUSE)

For native-born Americans, it means reminding ourselves that the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, and Italians, and Poles, who it was said were going to destroy the fundamental character of America. And as it turned out, America wasn’t weakened by the presence of these newcomers; these newcomers embraced this nation’s creed, and this nation was strengthened.

(APPLAUSE)

So regardless of the station we occupy; we all have to try harder; we all have to start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family just like we do; that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own.

(APPLAUSE) (CHEERING)

And that’s not easy to do. For too many of us it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods, or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. In the rise of naked partisanship and increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste, all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable.

And increasingly we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.

—Bubbles have always existed. They’re not the product of social media. Newspapers in the 19th and early 20th centuries in America were always firmly ideological—Republican or Democrat, nativist or pro-immigrant, for blacks or for whites or for Jewish people, etc. But the harm of bubbles is intensified by social media. Now we don’t even have to know that we are buying “our” paper for “our” people; we can go online to a site that pretends to be objective while it peddles ridiculous and harmful, divisive and undemocratic opinions, or, more and more often, lies. People become used to arguing with other people only when they leave those social media bubbles, not within them, and the right to argue a point is confused with the right to win an argument. It’s enough to make one wonder whether the “information wants to be free” movement that destroyed paid journalism was an anti-democratic plot after all…

Next time: the third threat to American democracy

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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 Address

Posted on January 13, 2017. Filed under: Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

Presidential farewell addresses are fairly predictable. They are dramatic, emotional, and long. But sometimes they are very important, because they shine a clear light on how our highest leader thinks about the United States, his analysis of what is good and bad about the nation, and how he wants us to think about it. You may recall our series on the first farewell address, from George Washington, and  our series on Ronald Reagan’s 1989 farewell address. Both are instances of important farewell addresses. Both warn the American people against dangers and urge them to preserve what America stands for (though they could not possibly be more different in how they define each of those categories).

Now Barack Obama has delivered his farewell, and we feel it is important, partly because of the president giving it, and partly because of the president about to follow him. Here is the first installment in our close-reading (we take our text from the official White House transcript, omitting only the times it tells you people applauded [“Applause”]):

THE PRESIDENT: Hello, Chicago! It’s good to be home! Thank you, everybody. Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you. All right, everybody sit down. We’re on live TV here. I’ve got to move. You can tell that I’m a lame duck because nobody is following instructions. (Laughter.) Everybody have a seat.

—Right away we see Obama doing something different: he’s the only president since Lyndon Johnson to give his Farewell Address in front of a live audience (Johnson gave his as part of his last State of the Union Address in 1969). Presidents before TV generally saw farewell addresses as literary artifacts: they were published without ever being delivered as speeches. Presidents in the radio age gave their addresses over the radio. And with the exception of Johnson, presidents in the TV age gave their addresses on TV. There is usually no call-and-response between president and audience. Here, we see Obama responding to the audience, and we deleted about a half-dozen references to applause.

Why the actual speech? There seem to be two possible or likely answers: first, Obama enjoys talking to a live audience; second, it was particularly important for him to see the faces of his supporters (since people who do not support him would be unlikely to show up at this event). He has always expressed great affection for and closeness to his supporters, and as he hands off the presidency to someone who clearly does not like Obama supporters, Mr. Obama wanted to “be with them” one last time as president. This jibes with the overall optimism of Obama’s message; he seems to have wanted to bolster the mood and hopes of those who look forward to Trump’s presidency with dread. It’s far easier to do this in person, where you can gesture and laugh and walk around a little—not things you can really do as well on TV.

My fellow Americans, Michelle and I have been so touched by all the well wishes that we’ve received over the past few weeks. But tonight, it’s my turn to say thanks.  Whether we have seen eye-to-eye or rarely agreed at all, my conversations with you, the American people, in living rooms and in schools, at farms, on factory floors, at diners and on distant military outposts — those conversations are what have kept me honest, and kept me inspired, and kept me going. And every day, I have learned from you. You made me a better President, and you made me a better man.

So I first came to Chicago when I was in my early 20s. And I was still trying to figure out who I was, still searching for a purpose in my life. And it was a neighborhood not far from here where I began working with church groups in the shadows of closed steel mills. It was on these streets where I witnessed the power of faith, and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss.

AUDIENCE: Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!

THE PRESIDENT: I can’t do that.

AUDIENCE: Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!

—It seems odd to us that people began to chant “four more years” at this point. It’s something Americans do, but not usually this early in a speech, and not usually until the president says something about what he’s accomplished in office. Here, Obama has made only  a fairly boilerplate statement, so far as presidential speeches go, about what he’s learned from the American people, and just begun to talk about his early years (something almost every address since Reagan seems to do). And even this reminiscing, so far, is pretty standard—talking about the dignity of hard-working Americans who meet challenges bravely.

Maybe people’s emotions were sparked because the president speaking is black, and for the first time, so are the working people dealing with struggle and loss. Obama will address this openly later in the Address, when he says (in so many words) that “hard-working Americans” has become a code for “white Americans”. But as a young black organizer, Obama met with black Americans who struggled but possessed dignity and faith, and he recognized them as real Americans. This may have hit his audience and led them to cry out for four more years of a black president.

Next time: the most important thing any president, any American, could say

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