My friend the Nation columnist Eric Alterman just gave me a copy of his new book Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama, and analysis of how the weaknesses of the American political system have ganged up on the president and made it difficult for him to deliver on the promises of his 2008 campaign. I’m just getting into it, but I know the author shares my own disappointment, perhaps for different reasons, with Obama’s performance.
Personally, I am sickened when he brags about having killed Osama BinLaden and his followers either by sending Navy Seals or systematic assassinations of bad guys—plus anyone else with the bad luck of being in the neighborhood—with his fleet of drones. I realize that for political reasons he wants to avoid projecting the image of a wimp. But real men, especially those who call themselves Christians, don’t talk with satisfaction about the men they have killed.
But two major documents have appeared within the last few weeks whose purpose is to refocus pubic attention on the “other” Obama, the one so many thought they were voting for, then became disillusioned when he didn’t respond to the economic crisis with a New Deal-like works program: rebuild the infrastructure, raise the standard of living the average middle-class American, and pull the unemployed poor out of their poverty. The Obama we elected was pushed into the background by the “community organizer” Obama who thought that a compromise with the Republican congressmen whose only goal was to undermine his presidency would win them over.
First, Obama’s White House office on religion sent out a list of quotes from key documents which embodied Obama’s religious ideals. The first was his historic “Call to Renewal” Speech on June 26, 2006, delivered to Jim Wallis’ Call to Renewal conference, in which he criticized both the religious Right and the secular Left. Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne called it the most significant statement on politics and religion since JFK’s 1960 address in Houston. What stands out beautifully is his insistence on the connection between religious belief and social justice.
The secularists are wrong, he says, when they suggest we leave our religion at the door before entering the public square. The great reformers of American history—Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King—used religious language for their cause. “So to say that men and women should not inject their ‘personal morality’ into public policy debates is a practical absurdity.”
A practical application: We need Christians Jews, and Muslims on capitol hill talking about the estate tax. “When you’ve got an estate tax debate that proposes a trillion dollars being taken out of social programs to go to a handful of folks who don’t need and weren’t asking for it, you know we need an injection of morality in our political debate.”
The other is the Dec. 6 speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, where Teddy Roosevelt gave his “New Nationalism” speech in 1910. To The Nation, this was “real talk” about how, in Obama's words, the “basic bargain that made this country great has eroded” and how this is a “make or break moment for the middle class.” According to the Nation, the speech was one “Obama should have given years ago; it took the Occupy movement to make him do it.”
To Alex Mikulich, in the National Catholic Reporter, “this marks the defining moment of his presidency...a moral framework resonant with Catholic social teaching.” Its three themes match Catholic social principles: 1) The economy ought to serve people, not profits. 2) labor must take priority over capital; and 3) property must serve the common good. His attack on the “trickle down” theory of economic justice is devastating. “It doesn’t work. It has never worked.” “We simply cannot return to this brand of ‘you’re on your own’ economics.” Inequality hurts us all. “Inequality also distorts our democracy. It gives an outsized voice to the few who can afford high—priced lobbyists...and runs the risk of selling out our democracy to the highest bidder.”
This is just a taste. Read it. Tell the diocesan papers to prints excerpts and the bishops and pastors to preach on it. The talk is very long. But I can’t recall a speech like it which the voters can wave in his face every day when he is tempted to compromise it away.
Can he disappoint us again? Sure. Is there anyone else on the horizon with the same vision of economic justice, inspired, to some sincere degree, by religious belief?
Raynond A. Schroth