The Corner

But What Shall We Do Together?

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:

You know, there are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me, because they want to give something back.  They know they didn’t—look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.  You didn’t get there on your own.  I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart.  There are a lot of smart people out there.  It must be because I worked harder than everybody else.  Let me tell you something—there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.  There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.  Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.  Somebody invested in roads and bridges.  If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen.  The Internet didn’t get invented on its own.  Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.  There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own.  I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service.  That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.

So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, “you know what, there’s some things we do better together.” That’s how we funded the GI Bill, that’s how we created the middle class. That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge and the Hoover Dam. That’s how we invented the Internet, that’s how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that’s the reason I’m running for president, because I still believe in that idea: You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.

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.

#more#In fact, it is precisely the idea that government is essential to capitalism—that markets are created and sustained by public policy—that motivates a lot of the conservative opposition to Obama. As the latest Republican budget itself puts it (on page 7),

The federal government also has a critical role to play in safeguarding the free-enterprise system, so that fraud is punished, success is rewarded, and the rules are not rigged against the small businessman, the innovator, or the worker. In Abraham Lincoln’s words, the true object of government should be “to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all,” so that all may have the same opportunity to rise.

And this is what Obama’s weird defense of all common action merely for its being common rather obviously misses. Those investments in roads and bridges, those efforts to make markets possible, those common actions he refers to were intended to create the conditions to allow people to improve themselves and pursue opportunities. Common (i.e. government) actions that instead stand in the way of enterprise, opportunity, and prosperity are not excused from criticism simply because they are common (i.e. government) actions. Obviously there are some things government should do and there are some things government shouldn’t do. Obama has too often failed to perform the former and has advanced entirely too many of the latter. That’s what his opponents oppose. What is his answer to their charges in particular? How does a general argument for government sometimes being necessary excuse his choices? How does the Golden Gate Bridge justify Obamacare?

It does so only in the minds of people for whom public vs. private is the essential distinction, and public is in all cases the side of the good. It is a stunningly thin and degraded form of progressivism made possible by a kind of cartoon history of American life, a dangerously shallow notion of solidarity, and a refusal to actually hear what American conservatives are saying or see what is happening to the liberal welfare state.

In speeches like this one it often seems the president is not even aware he is saying something inane and meaningless. He has become a kind of caricature of himself, fighting an imaginary enemy with pointless platitudes while ignoring his own record and its consequences. It’s a sign of the Obama campaign’s desperate desire not to talk about this president’s presidency, but I think it is even more a sign of the left’s broader intellectual exhaustion.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.