Obama Inaugural’s Liberal Definition of Rights

By Michael Kinsley, Washington Monthly, January 22, 2013

Excerpt

President Barack Obama’s on Monday made — or tried to make — two different points, both concerning the definition of “rights.”…both are parts of a solidly liberal vision of society and government…First, Obama added a chapter on gay rights to the official story of America as a continuing experiment in expanding freedom..This almost offhand reference by the president to a 1969 gay-rights riot as part of the grand procession of American equality and civil rights is itself a milestone…

The president’s second fascinating gloss on the concept of rights has to do with negative and positive rights. In the U.S., when we think of rights, we think mainly of negative rights: rights against the government. The Bill of Rights is largely a list of things the government may not do to you…There is another view of “rights” that sees them in positive terms, as obligations of society to all its citizens. The right to education, to food, to a job, to health care, and so on. These are the kind of rights that engage Obama.

“We the people,” he said today, “still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity.”…So Obama does have a vision — articulated pretty clearly if not explicitly in his speech today. Society, through its proxy, the government, should provide the individual with a higher level of protection from hardship and catastrophe than it does now…

Full text

President Barack Obama’s on Monday made — or tried to make — two different points, both concerning the definition of “rights.” Although couched in the kind of president-ese appropriate to such an occasion, both goals were easy to spot, and both are parts of a solidly liberal vision of society and government.

People have been looking for the real Barack Obama — principled (maybe dangerously principled) progressive or deeply (maybe disappointingly) moderate compromiser? This speech makes the answer clear.

First, Obama added a chapter on gay rights to the official story of America as a continuing experiment in expanding freedom: “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.” Women’s rights, blacks’ rights, gays’ rights. From now on that’s our story, and we’re sticking with it.

This almost offhand reference by the president to a 1969 gay-rights riot as part of the grand procession of American equality and civil rights is itself a milestone. From now on, the boilerplate Fourth of July rhetoric of all politicians, or at least all Democratic politicians, will cite “black or white, men or women, Christian or Jewish or Muslim, gay or straight,” and they will leave out the last pairing at their peril. (A genuine contribution of George W. Bush’s presidency was adding Muslims to the roll-call of American pluralism. One now says, “our churches, synagogues, and mosques.” Following Obama, one will refer to “our gay brothers and sisters” who deserve to be “treated like anyone else under the law.”)

Positive Rights

The president’s second fascinating gloss on the concept of rights has to do with negative and positive rights. In the U.S., when we think of rights, we think mainly of negative rights: rights against the government. The Bill of Rights is largely a list of things the government may not do to you. It may not prevent you from having your say, or praying to your own God, or living unbothered in your own house. It may not discriminate against you on account of race, religion, and so on. But it has no positive duty to feed or house you.

There is another view of “rights” that sees them in positive terms, as obligations of society to all its citizens. The right to education, to food, to a job, to health care, and so on. These are the kind of rights that engage Obama.

“We the people,” he said today, “still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity.” Like the other kind of rights, these rights can exist in theory for years or centuries without being realized in practice. That’s one reason that the struggle is never-ending.

Of course, being a politician, Obama claims that his vision of society is uniquely American. His critics, by contrast, have tried to nail him as a European intellectual (two fighting words). In truth, his vision of a properly run society is closer to the European model than, say, Representative Paul Ryan’s. But voters seem to prefer Obama’s. Or at least the voters were given the opportunity for the Ryan model and turned it down.

Obama said: “A modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.” And, “A great nation must care for the vulnerable and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.”

Who disagrees with that? Yet our particular great nation is letting its railroads and highways rot and does only a mediocre job of protecting people from life’s worst hazards.

Central Philosophy

Perhaps we now know why Obama took up health-care reform at the beginning of his first term, even though there was other stuff (i.e. the financial crisis) going on, and his advisers (the ones on his payroll and those in the news media) were saying, put it off. Decent health care for everybody isn’t just a nice thing to have. It’s central to Obama’s philosophy of government.

So Obama does have a vision — articulated pretty clearly if not explicitly in his speech today. Society, through its proxy, the government, should provide the individual with a higher level of protection from hardship and catastrophe than it does now. Government should also invest in public goods such as highways and education, which will also grease the wheels of commerce. Even global warming and the deficit get shoehorned into the framework of problems the government must deal with so individuals can be free to live their lives as they choose.

The president said, “This generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience.” It has? If so, it sure caught me napping. I think we are fairly untested, and it’s hard to share the president’s optimism. But he gets paid to be optimistic.

Full text

President Barack Obama’s on Monday made — or tried to make — two different points, both concerning the definition of “rights.” Although couched in the kind of president-ese appropriate to such an occasion, both goals were easy to spot, and both are parts of a solidly liberal vision of society and government.

People have been looking for the real Barack Obama — principled (maybe dangerously principled) progressive or deeply (maybe disappointingly) moderate compromiser? This speech makes the answer clear.

First, Obama added a chapter on gay rights to the official story of America as a continuing experiment in expanding freedom: “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.” Women’s rights, blacks’ rights, gays’ rights. From now on that’s our story, and we’re sticking with it.

This almost offhand reference by the president to a 1969 gay-rights riot as part of the grand procession of American equality and civil rights is itself a milestone. From now on, the boilerplate Fourth of July rhetoric of all politicians, or at least all Democratic politicians, will cite “black or white, men or women, Christian or Jewish or Muslim, gay or straight,” and they will leave out the last pairing at their peril. (A genuine contribution of George W. Bush’s presidency was adding Muslims to the roll-call of American pluralism. One now says, “our churches, synagogues, and mosques.” Following Obama, one will refer to “our gay brothers and sisters” who deserve to be “treated like anyone else under the law.”)

Positive Rights

The president’s second fascinating gloss on the concept of rights has to do with negative and positive rights. In the U.S., when we think of rights, we think mainly of negative rights: rights against the government. The Bill of Rights is largely a list of things the government may not do to you. It may not prevent you from having your say, or praying to your own God, or living unbothered in your own house. It may not discriminate against you on account of race, religion, and so on. But it has no positive duty to feed or house you.

There is another view of “rights” that sees them in positive terms, as obligations of society to all its citizens. The right to education, to food, to a job, to health care, and so on. These are the kind of rights that engage Obama.

“We the people,” he said today, “still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity.” Like the other kind of rights, these rights can exist in theory for years or centuries without being realized in practice. That’s one reason that the struggle is never-ending.

Of course, being a politician, Obama claims that his vision of society is uniquely American. His critics, by contrast, have tried to nail him as a European intellectual (two fighting words). In truth, his vision of a properly run society is closer to the European model than, say, Representative Paul Ryan’s. But voters seem to prefer Obama’s. Or at least the voters were given the opportunity for the Ryan model and turned it down.

Obama said: “A modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.” And, “A great nation must care for the vulnerable and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.”

Who disagrees with that? Yet our particular great nation is letting its railroads and highways rot and does only a mediocre job of protecting people from life’s worst hazards.

Central Philosophy

Perhaps we now know why Obama took up health-care reform at the beginning of his first term, even though there was other stuff (i.e. the financial crisis) going on, and his advisers (the ones on his payroll and those in the news media) were saying, put it off. Decent health care for everybody isn’t just a nice thing to have. It’s central to Obama’s philosophy of government.

So Obama does have a vision — articulated pretty clearly if not explicitly in his speech today. Society, through its proxy, the government, should provide the individual with a higher level of protection from hardship and catastrophe than it does now. Government should also invest in public goods such as highways and education, which will also grease the wheels of commerce. Even global warming and the deficit get shoehorned into the framework of problems the government must deal with so individuals can be free to live their lives as they choose.

The president said, “This generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience.” It has? If so, it sure caught me napping. I think we are fairly untested, and it’s hard to share the president’s optimism. But he gets paid to be optimistic.

President Barack Obama’s on Monday made — or tried to make — two different points, both concerning the definition of “rights.” Although couched in the kind of president-ese appropriate to such an occasion, both goals were easy to spot, and both are parts of a solidly liberal vision of society and government.

People have been looking for the real Barack Obama — principled (maybe dangerously principled) progressive or deeply (maybe disappointingly) moderate compromiser? This speech makes the answer clear.

First, Obama added a chapter on gay rights to the official story of America as a continuing experiment in expanding freedom: “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.” Women’s rights, blacks’ rights, gays’ rights. From now on that’s our story, and we’re sticking with it.

This almost offhand reference by the president to a 1969 gay-rights riot as part of the grand procession of American equality and civil rights is itself a milestone. From now on, the boilerplate Fourth of July rhetoric of all politicians, or at least all Democratic politicians, will cite “black or white, men or women, Christian or Jewish or Muslim, gay or straight,” and they will leave out the last pairing at their peril. (A genuine contribution of George W. Bush’s presidency was adding Muslims to the roll-call of American pluralism. One now says, “our churches, synagogues, and mosques.” Following Obama, one will refer to “our gay brothers and sisters” who deserve to be “treated like anyone else under the law.”)

Positive Rights

The president’s second fascinating gloss on the concept of rights has to do with negative and positive rights. In the U.S., when we think of rights, we think mainly of negative rights: rights against the government. The Bill of Rights is largely a list of things the government may not do to you. It may not prevent you from having your say, or praying to your own God, or living unbothered in your own house. It may not discriminate against you on account of race, religion, and so on. But it has no positive duty to feed or house you.

There is another view of “rights” that sees them in positive terms, as obligations of society to all its citizens. The right to education, to food, to a job, to health care, and so on. These are the kind of rights that engage Obama.

“We the people,” he said today, “still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity.” Like the other kind of rights, these rights can exist in theory for years or centuries without being realized in practice. That’s one reason that the struggle is never-ending.

Of course, being a politician, Obama claims that his vision of society is uniquely American. His critics, by contrast, have tried to nail him as a European intellectual (two fighting words). In truth, his vision of a properly run society is closer to the European model than, say, Representative Paul Ryan’s. But voters seem to prefer Obama’s. Or at least the voters were given the opportunity for the Ryan model and turned it down.

Obama said: “A modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.” And, “A great nation must care for the vulnerable and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.”

Who disagrees with that? Yet our particular great nation is letting its railroads and highways rot and does only a mediocre job of protecting people from life’s worst hazards.

Central Philosophy

Perhaps we now know why Obama took up health-care reform at the beginning of his first term, even though there was other stuff (i.e. the financial crisis) going on, and his advisers (the ones on his payroll and those in the news media) were saying, put it off. Decent health care for everybody isn’t just a nice thing to have. It’s central to Obama’s philosophy of government.

So Obama does have a vision — articulated pretty clearly if not explicitly in his speech today. Society, through its proxy, the government, should provide the individual with a higher level of protection from hardship and catastrophe than it does now. Government should also invest in public goods such as highways and education, which will also grease the wheels of commerce. Even global warming and the deficit get shoehorned into the framework of problems the government must deal with so individuals can be free to live their lives as they choose.

The president said, “This generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience.” It has? If so, it sure caught me napping. I think we are fairly untested, and it’s hard to share the president’s optimism. But he gets paid to be optimistic.

http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/ten-miles-square/2013/01/obama_inaugurals_liberal_defin_1042537.php

A Liberal Moment

By TIMOTHY EGAN, New York Times, November 29, 2012

Still hard to believe, I told a friend the other day while trying to fathom the election results, that pot is legal in my state, gays are free to marry, and a black man who vowed to raise taxes on the rich won a majority of the popular vote for president, back to back – the first time anyone has done that since Franklin Roosevelt’s second election in 1936.

And yet only one in four voters identified themselves as “liberal” in national exit polls. Conservatives were 35 percent, and moderates the plurality, at 41 percent. The number of voters who agreed to the “l” tag was up by three percentage points, for what it’s worth, from 22 percent in 2008.

What’s going on here, demography and democracy seem to be saying at the same time, is the advance of progressive political ideas by a majority that spurns an obvious label. Liberals have long been a distinct minority; liberalism, in its better forms, has been triumphant at key times since the founding of the Republic.

Abraham Lincoln’s push for the 13th Amendment, erasing the original sin of slavery from the land, was a liberal moment, as dramatized in Steven Spielberg’s new film. Teddy Roosevelt’s embrace of the income tax, eventually written into the Constitution after he left office, was a liberal moment. “No single device has done so much to secure the future of capitalism as this tax,” said John Kenneth Galbraith.

Women’s suffrage in 1920, Social Security in 1935, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – all liberal moments. Ditto the creation of national parks, and laws against child labor and poisoning the environment, and for giving most Americans access to health care.

Democrats were the knuckle-draggers on race and populist economic reform in the 19th century, Republicans in the latter half of the 20th. The party identities change; the arc of enlightenment does not.

Which brings us to the fascinating self-portrait of the United States at the start of the second half of the Obama era. A tenuous center-left majority wants to restore some equality to the outsize imbalance between the very rich and the rest of us. If a tenuous president can lead that coalition, without overreaching, he might be remembered among the greats.

In its simplest form, this will involve raising taxes at the high end and reforming entitlements enough to ensure their continued success and sustainability. Much of that, an accountant could do. But it takes a gifted politician for the heavier lifting. That leader will have to make his still-fledgling health care act work and earn his premature Nobel Peace Prize on an issue like climate change. In the process, he could restore the good name to traditional liberalism.

For at least a generation’s time, liberals in this country have been afraid to call themselves liberal. Was it the excesses of their creed, from race-based preferential programs that went on far too long to crude speech censorship by the politically correct and humorless (one and the same) that soiled the brand? In blindly embracing, say, the teachers’ union in the face of overwhelming evidence that public education needs a jolt or in never questioning the efficacy of government programs, the left earned its years in exile.

Or was it the relentless campaign by the broadcasting and publishing empires of the far right, associating liberals with tyranny, spiritual vacuity and baby killing, that drove people from the label that could not speak its name? “Godless,” “Treason” and “Demonic” are actual Ann Coulter book titles, and a representative sample of the profitable cartooning of liberals.

Liberalism, in the broadest sense, is about expanding human rights and opportunity, while embracing science and reason. What do they call the secularists in Egypt today pushing for democracy over a theocracy? Liberals.

The Progressives of the early 20th had an amazing run – direct elections of senators, regulation of monopolistic trusts, modernization of public schools, cleaning up the food supply – with only one major blooper: Prohibition.

The New Deal’s lasting legacy, Social Security, and its counterpart of the 1960s, Medicare, allowed millions of American to live out their lives in dignity. Those programs, attacked as socialistic abominations by the Fox News shills of their day, are now considered near sacrosanct by Americans of all political stripes.

Conservatives of the last decade lost their way by rejecting science, immigration reform and personal freedom, particularly in regard to choices made by women and gays. If you believe in climate change, finding a path to citizenship for millions of hard-working Hispanics and the right to marry the person you love, there is no place in the Republican Party of 2012 for you.

Their neo-con wing started a pair of disastrous wars that all but bankrupted the country. And for leaders, at least on television, the party put forth crackpots like Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and the morally elastic Newt Gingrich. This chorus promoted an orthodoxy that forced this year’s standard-bearer, Mitt Romney, to sound even more out of touch than he already was.

All political moments are ephemeral. This one could vanish in the blink of a donkey’s eye. But here it is: a chance to shore up a battered middle class, make the promise of health care expansion work and do something about a planet in peril. Huge tasks, of course, and fraught with risk. For now, the majority of Americans have Obama’s back. But should he fail, the same majority could become something much worse – a confederacy of cynics.

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/29/a-liberal-moment/?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20121130

Liberalism’s Glass Jaw

by Ross Douthat, New York Times, October 9, 2012

Last month, Republicans staring at defeat in November alternated between blaming Mitt Romney and blaming the American people, when they should have been looking harder at the flaws in contemporary conservatism. Now that Romney has surged back into contention, liberals are making a similar mistake. They’re focusing too intently on the particular weaknesses of President Obama’s debate performance, rather than on the weaknesses in Obama-era liberalism that last Wednesday’sDenver showdown left exposed.

Four years ago, the Obama presidency was hailed as the beginning of an extended liberal renaissance – a new New Deal, a resurrected Camelot, a return to the glory days of Lyndon Johnson beforeVietnamwrecked his presidency. Health care reform was the highest priority, but it was only supposed to be the beginning. With the Democrats enjoying huge congressional majorities, everything seemed to be on the table: Immigration reform, a program to combat climate change, card-check legislation, a wave of trust-busting in the banking sector – and at the least, the very least, a return to Clinton-era tax rates.

There is no world in which all of these hopes could have been perfectly realized. But the ways in which they’ve been disappointed have delivered some hard lessons. It isn’t just that Obama failed to live up to the (frankly impossible) standard set by his 2008 campaign, and the media adoration that accompanied it. It’s that the nature of his failures speak to the limits of the liberal project, and the tensions and contradictions within the liberal coalition.

Sometimes Obama-era liberalism has disappointed because it has failed outright. The defeat of cap-and-trade legislation and the stillborn push for immigration reform exposed the deep fissures within the Democratic party, and particularly the divide between the enlightened do-goodism of the party’s upper middle class supporters and the economic interests of its remaining blue-collar constituents.

The steadily worsening deficit picture, meanwhile, has been a reminder that an expanding government balance sheet only makes sense if you can persuade taxpayers to pay more to cover it, which Obama’s party hasn’t done. More importantly, given the limit to how much money can be extracted from the wealthy, it only makes sense if you persuade middle class taxpayers to pay more, which Obama’s party hasn’t even tried to do.

But the Obama administration’s legislative successes have offered hard lessons to liberals as well. Indeed, it’s the failures of the successes, if you will, that have cast the longest shadow across his re-election effort.

First, there was the failure of stimulus bill to deliver anything like the kind of rebound that Obama’s technocrats confidently projected. This failure isn’t necessarily an indictment of the theory behind Keynesian economics. But at the very least it exposes two limitations on Keynesianism in practice: The difficulties that even experts can have assessing the true state of the economy, and the ways in which the push and pull of democratic politics makes it difficult to simply keep throwing money at a problem.

Then came the White House’s failure to sell the public on its health care bill, which exacerbated the stimulus’s underperformance – by leading to months of wrangling when Washingtonshould have been reckoning with the economy instead – and then cost the Democrats dearly at the polls in 2010. This failure of salesmanship doesn’t in and of itself discredit the bill’s provisions. But at the very least it demonstrates that the redistributive policies liberals favor will only be accepted if they’re founded on a secure base of economic growth – growth that Obama’s policies, unlike F.D.R.’s or L.B.J.’s, have conspicuously failed to produce.

More broadly, all of Obama’s signature accomplishments have tended to have the same weakness in common: They have been weighed down by interest-group payoffs and compromised by concessions to powerful insiders, from big pharma (which stands to profit handsomely from the health care bill) to the biggest banks (which were mostly protected by the Dodd-Frank financial reform). It may have been an empty rhetorical gesture, but the fact that Romney could actually out-populist the president on “too big to fail” during the last debate speaks to the Obama-era tendency for liberalism to blur into a kind of corporatism, in which big government intertwines with big business rather than restraining it.

Again, every administration has its share of disappointments, and every ideology has to make concessions to political reality. But what we don’t see in this campaign cycle is much soul-searching from Democrats about the ways in which their agenda hasn’t worked out as planned.

Instead, in a country facing a continued unemployment crisis and a looming deficit crunch, liberals have rallied behind a White House whose only real jobs program is “stay the course” and whose plan to deal with long-term deficits relies on the woefully insufficient promise to tax the 1 percent. When Obama insiders wax optimistic about what a second term might bring, they mostly talk about pursuing legislation on climate change and immigration yet again, without explaining why things will turn out differently this time around.

This lack of a plausible vision, more than his stutters and missed opportunities, is what doomed the president in last week’s debate. His responses to Romney were strikingly backward-looking – alternating between “we’re already doing that” and “we tried that under Republicans, and it didn’t work,” and rarely pivoting effectively to “here’s what we should do next.”

It’s not that Romney offered some detailed, brilliantly persuasive alternative. He didn’t, and couldn’t, because his party has at best a sketch of a policy agenda rather than a blueprint. But Romney isn’t running for re-election, and this was a case where merely seeming forward-looking, energetic and reassuring was enough to remind Americans of all the ways that the Obama era has disappointed them – and in so doing, sent shivers down liberalism’s glass jaw.

http://campaignstops.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/09/douthat-liberalisms-glass-jaw/?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20121010&pagewanted=print

A Liberal Translation By Timothy Garton Ash

New York Times, January 24, 2009

Missing from Mr. Obama’s address was only the proper name of the political philosophy, coded into the constitutional DNA of theUnited States, that proposes this and other balances: liberalism. – the Inaugural Address presented, in substance, a blend of classical constitutional and modern egalitarian liberalism. 

Over the last two decades a truly eccentric usage has triumphed in American public debate. Liberalism has become a pejorative term denoting — to put the matter a tad frivolously — -The United States is not the only place where “liberalism” is fiercely contested. – worldwide conceptual cacophony – combinations and balances belong to liberalism’s defining essence, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.— for example, the free market — dominates, then the result can be illiberalism. The vital, never-ending debate over liberalism is not just over its indispensable ingredients, but also over their form, proportion and relation to one another. 

A plausible minimum list of ingredients for 21st century liberalism would include liberty under law, limited and accountable government, markets, tolerance, some version of individualism and universalism, and some notion of human equality, reason and progress. – But somewhere in this contested, evolving combination there is a thing of enduring value.

This has been an American argument, some would say the American argument, for more than 200 years. In fact, the United Statesis still full of liberals, both progressive or left liberals and, I would insist, conservative or right liberals. Most of them just don’t use the word. Liberalism is the American love that dare not speak its name. -free-market liberalism, a k a neo-liberalism, –  markets remain an indispensable condition of liberty. – those of us who believe in the universal, enduring value of liberalism – has decisively reasserted the importance of equal liberty under the rule of law 

Seeking a more just and efficient balance between government and markets is at the heart of his domestic agenda. He has also found ways to present the traditional liberal value of tolerance in new language that speaks to our increasingly mixed-up world. 

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/25/opinion/25gartonash-1.html?_r=1