Monday, February 16, 2009

Politics: Can Obama Restore Balance?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In the midst of the battle to get a stimulus package passed in Congress, relatively few people took notice of the speech that US President Barack Obama made on Thursday, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. In the speech, Obama cited the influence of Lincoln on his own philosophy--and demonstrated that, despite his recent failures to achieve bi-partisanship, he conceptually understands what it will take to bring the United States back to balance again.

It's not news that Obama admires the nation's 16th president or that an earlier president from Illinois influenced the present one. One only needs to read excerpts of Obama's autobiography for that to become clear. In the campaign, though, it seemed more like rhetoric. The current stimulus package makes it seem much more real.

A key passage from Lincoln that Obama cited on Thursday was the following:
The legitimate object of government is to do for the people what needs to be done but which they cannot, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, by themselves.
Obama has, in many places, written and spoken on the concept of balance between individualism and communal responsibility, and stated that Lincoln was a master of that balancing act.

For too long, the United States has been unbalanced in favor of individualism. All attempts to introduce any degree of broader responsibility have been derided as socialism, communism, and impediments to real growth in the economy, threats to the very concept of freedom itself. It took essentially a generation, but the consequences of being so extreme toward individualism have now become clear--when things go wrong, not just the very weakest but a sizable percentage of people suddenly don't have anything left to try to recover, dragging the whole system down.

On the other hand, that same individualism is what has made the country so great--it allows entrepreneurs to take risks and innovate, to advance not just their own lives but give the whole world new technologies. The key is to keep things in balance--allow individualism as much as possible, but establish regulation and safety nets so that the whole system doesn't fail when some of risks taken by the entrepreneurs turn out to be failures.

Obama not only talks about this in conceptual terms, but the philosophy could be seen at work in the stimulus package. Tax cuts--that most sacred of individualist financial measures, the minimization of money taken from individuals--were part of the package. That could be seen as a political move to try to gain Republican support in a bi-partisan outreach, but it could also be seen simply as recognition that individualism still needs to be encouraged going forward. It's consistent with the philosophy of balance. Similarly, spending by the spender of last resort--the government--was included in Obama's package. That could be seen as a set of pork projects for politicians, but it could also be seen as a way to demonstrate that the government can have a direct role in protecting the health of the economy when it is in crisis--a move back toward balance.

Republicans in general would have had a lot more credibility in opposing the package that Obama will sign tomorrow had they focused their criticism on the nature of the spending in the package, questioning whether it was effective stimulus. There likely were ways to improve how the money will be spent--Obama himself admitted that the bill wasn't perfect. Instead, many--especially in the House--simply stated they wanted nothing but tax cuts and didn't want the government to spend any money. They were sticking to the individualist game plan, and wanted nothing of communal responsibility. They remained out of balance.

The sad part is that the concept of individualism has been so ingrained in the United States for the past generation that the Republicans may have actually made the superior political choice. Barack Obama may the taking his cues from Abraham Lincoln and trying to bring things back into balance, but the country may no longer be receptive to balance. It will be very interesting to see how far Obama can move the United States back toward communal responsibility again.

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