In his coronation speech at Denver’s Mile High stadium on Thursday night, Barack Obama tried to wrap himself in the mantle of the Democrats of past generations.
Trouble is, the coat doesn’t fit. The internationalism of the old Democratic party has vanished.
Obama summoned the memory of Franklin Roosevelt. But FDR understood the importance of standing up to Hitler, beating back America’s traditional isolationism. He did not believe that “tough, direct diplomacy” would work against a thug like Adolf Hitler.
And then there’s Harry Truman, who brought Americans to realize that even after the burdens of fighting World War II, they had to provide leadership in a world that faced the second behemoth of Soviet Communism.
And of course, John Kennedy, who promised to bear any burden to protect liberty in the world.
The current Democratic candidate has turned his back on this tradition. His pollsters have told him that the economy is his strong suit. And certainly foreign policy is not a trump card for a politician from Chicago’s South Side.
So in the attempt to mask his weak suit, the senator chose to deliver what must, however reluctantly, be called an isolationist speech.
He denounced free trade, even though an open economy provides products that are cheaper for Americans to buy. He talked about the value of cost-free diplomacy. But the senator did not offer a strategy, much less a cut line, to meet urgent challenges.
One can tell more about a man by what he chooses not to say.
The senator didn’t bother to mention the failure of the Doha Round, which keeps poor countries in Africa and Latin America from selling their agricultural products to first world markets.
The senator did not address the urgent issue of Russia’s recrudescent nationalism and the vagrant tactics of Vladimir Putin, or the threat that faces the countries of Central Europe. He may have forgotten that many voters in the Middle West have cousins who still live in Putin’s zone of ambition.
He offers no strategy to counter Iran’s nuclear program, including the threat that it poses to Europe, the Middle East and the state of Israel. Not even the Europeans believe any longer that “tough, direct diplomacy” will suffice to thwart the nuclear ambitions of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
And quite noticeably, he made no reference at all to the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism — even while it finds continuing expression in such recent tragedies as the bombing in Algeria.
He did not mention the long-term need to keep watch on China as it modernizes its military and gains the capacity to shoot down satellites and impose area-denial on the Seventh Fleet in northeast Asia.
He did not call upon our European allies to increase their budgetary commitment to defense, whether to help in peacekeeping in Sudan, or to counter the rising powers of Moscow and Teheran.
Those are topics that don’t arise in the pork barrel politics of Chicago, and the young candidate could still learn on the job.
But the premise of Obama’s address was that he was ready, now, to protect America.
He just forgot to mention that the threats are real. Perhaps he doesn’t see them.
Still, there was another vaunted figure from the Democratic past, whose memory flickered among the Doric columns of the stadium stage. It was not Oedipus Rex or any other Greek character from Loeb’s Classical Library.
It was instead the likable and irrepressible man who was king of Louisiana — the irascible Senator Huey Long, who promised his constituents a “chicken in every pot” and a Ford in every garage.
Like Huey, Obama pledges that under his supervision, the government will provide “FreshDirect” delivery of every service and safeguard that a middle-class family could want.
Health care costs will shrink, or the government will take over the premiums. And a college education is on offer in exchange for a stint at public service.
And, without any suggestion what it will cost, we’ll have energy independence in ten years.
To pay for it, he suggests a careful line-by-line edit of the federal budget.
It’s nice work, if you can get it.
But the candidate is unwilling to admit that funding hundreds of billions of dollars in new entitlements may not be a wise play in the midst of a mortgage market contraction and credit crunch. In the salad days of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Clinton boom, it was seen as a great thing to put every American into a house they owned. It’s just that the costs were out of kilter.
And if it is so easy, why has the Democratic Congress been missing in action? Why did Nancy Pelosi adjourn the Congress this summer — instead of passing an energy bill? Why have the Democrats allowed wasteful earmarks in the federal budget?
And while Sen. Obama is discussing how to help America’s working families, it is conspicuous that he did not offer any specifics about immigration — how to treat immigrant families fairly and with compassion, while making sure that the American labor market is not distorted.
He does not celebrate the great strengths of America’s economy — our innovative spirit, a system of open competition that allows new entrants to flourish, a national highway system (championed by Dwight Eisenhower) that allows products to get to market quickly and efficiently. Nor, indeed, the role of the American navy in making sure that products can be shipped overseas in secure sea lanes, without challenge.
The senator would task the government to serve as the primary engine to help American industry retool. Japan tried that. It doesn’t work. The forces of the market are what ultimately grows an economy.
The junior senator from Illinois has never worked in the private sector. He has never put together a business plan or had to worry about maintaining a competitive edge against economies such as France and Japan, that even now have surpassing technological specialties.
It does not behoove a serious candidate to promise wine out of water, and chickens in every pot — without also recalling the private effort and human courage needed to assure that the world is at peace and the economy is growing.
The real point of the Mile High speech, apparently, was to show that the Senator is both patriotic and tough. The timing was a bit odd, trying to poke a stick in the eye of John McCain, just as the Arizona senator was congratulating the Democratic candidate on his success in winning the nomination.
But the speech did not erase questions that go to matters of prudence and judgment. Sen. Obama still does not understand that it is unwise to trivialize the dangers of terrorism, by excusing “a guy in the neighborhood” who conspired to bomb the Capitol and the Pentagon and has never apologized for it.
The senator has dared any American to question his judgment, just because he stayed for two decades in a church whose preacher spouted angry sermons about America.
And he was pointedly sarcastic about John McCain’s pledge to hunt down Osama bin Laden.
Obama may not recall that the last Democratic president rebuffed an offer by the Sudanese government to deliver bin Laden into our hands in 1996. And even rejected a second offer by the government of Qatar when bin Laden’s plane stopped to refuel.
The senator may not recall that the last Democratic president delayed an air strike against bin Laden’s desert camp in 1998, missing him by several hours.
The senator does not question why the last Democratic president downsized the U.S. military and intelligence establishment throughout the 1990’s — helping to create the dilemmas we have faced with an overstretched army.
Sen. Obama’s claimed leitmotif in his permanent campaign for higher office has been “change we can believe in.” He has no record of change in the U.S. Senate, because he has been on the road ever since his first election to federal office.
Yes, we do need a change in American politics. It is great to talk about equal rights for our daughters and sons. But the real deal is better — and the nomination of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as the candidate for vice president on the Republican ticket highlights what Obama chose not to do.
And the “changes” he now promises strain credulity. It makes politics into a cynical contest to offer pledges that a candidate knows he cannot deliver. It underestimates the sophistication and intelligence of the “average” American. And as the Senator would have to concede, America is better than that.
– Ruth Wedgwood teaches foreign policy and international law in Washington, D.C.