Once in a while, a politician will say something that really offers you some insight into his state of mind and his worldview. On Friday, President Obama gave a campaign speech that included a portion that really repays close inspection. He made his usual case for raising taxes on the wealthy, and then he said:
The most interesting part of this may well be when Obama says “that’s the reason I’m running for president.” Throughout his campaign speeches, it seems he can really only get excited when he forgets that he actually is the president right now and thus manages to reclaim some of that 2008 excitement he clearly badly misses today.
But the larger theme here is fascinating too. It’s a huge and increasingly a central part of what the Democrats are saying (Elizabeth Warren got lots of applause on the left for saying basically the same thing a few months ago), and it tells us a great deal about what they think they’re up against and what they understand themselves to be championing.
The first thing to say about the president’s argument is that most of it is true, and is very, very obvious. No one would disagree with the specific things he says, except perhaps the vague and strange “If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” Who? But the president clearly thinks that some people do disagree with his more general point that everyone depends on society. It’s very evident from this passage and from a great deal of what he has to say about his opponents that Obama thinks he is running against a band of nihilistic Ayn Rand objectivists who champion complete and utter radical individualism. That weird notion is also behind the various attempts to link Paul Ryan to Rand, which are pretty amusing if you’ve followed Ryan (for what it’s worth, I would say Ryan thinks Ayn Rand is correct in her analysis of the left, which she believes has drawn the wrong lessons from the death of God, but is incorrect in many of her own prescriptions because she shares the left’s belief that God is dead, but that’s a story for another day…).
The president implies that his opponents don’t think government has any purpose at all, or that laws are necessary for free markets, and don’t recognize the fruits of any common efforts in American history. That’s just ridiculous. I’m sure there are many libertarians who wish Republicans really were radical individualists, but there’s just simply nothing in what Republicans have said or done in our time to support the idea that they are. The Ryan budget, which almost every congressional Republican has voted for, is an attempt precisely to focus the government on achieving what people can’t achieve on their own and on effectively helping the vulnerable and those who cannot help themselves. It envisions a very significant set of public entitlements and programs, in some cases larger than the ones we have now, but tries to bring them into line with the ethic and way of life of our free economy, to make sure they don’t crowd out civil society, and to make them far more efficient and effective than they have been lately. It is a different vision of American life, but not a radically individualist one. It makes for a smaller government on the whole, but it is built on a clear sense that government serves some very crucial purposes. And Republicans are proposing a very gradual path to that vision of America beyond the welfare state. The president would like to imagine that he’s running against radical individualism, but he’s running against some fairly modest reform proposals to avert fiscal catastrophe.
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Photo credit: Andrew Aliferis