Another Perspective

Principles vs. Populism

A tale of two commencement speakers -- Bobby Jindal and Barack Obama.

By 5.20.09

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Barack Obama won the Catholic vote 54%-45% in the 2008 general election. George W. Bush won that vote, 52%-47%, in 2004 over John Kerry, a Roman Catholic. Many political pundits now view Catholics -- heavily blue collar, ethnic, and mostly Northern -- as a critical swing vote in national elections. It has become a rather good predictor in presidential outcomes.

If so, then the recent graduation speeches delivered  President  Obama at Notre Dame University and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal at Loyola University New Orleans may have offered an excellent preview of the 2012 presidential election.

One likely candidate is an electrifying populist who plays the race card and panders to class warfare, while the other is a convert to Catholicism who lives by his religion's principles and believes in the solutions of the market, not those of an all-powerful centralized state. The difference between the two men could not possibly be more distinct. This is not black and white in physical terms, as both leaders are "people of color." But it is starkly black and white in terms of outlook and convictions.

The outcry against Obama's speaking at Notre Dame has been loud and widespread. Some Bishops of the Church boycotted the event altogether, while groups like the Newman Society obtained over 365,000 signatures protesting the very invitation to the President. The protests were many and visible. The point of contention? The president's record on issues related to abortion, conflicting with the unwavering teachings of the Church.

Obama said to the graduates, "Understand -- I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. No matter how much we may want to fudge it -- indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory -- the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction." He came to placate and hint at compromise on issues that are fundamental, and while he got his honorary degree he failed to convince many souls.

Jindal, meanwhile, was elated to be speaking at Loyola and to receive an honorary doctorate there, celebrating his effectiveness as a moral public servant. There were no controversy or protests at all in Louisiana, where Jindal has a very high popularity rating and is expected to launch a national campaign in the not too distant future.  He said to a different set of graduates, "I'm all for knowledge... But make no mistake, knowledge is not power. Truth is power." Indeed, it appears that the two combatants are emerging as hands on favorites to run against each other when Obama faces re-election.

What is newsworthy is that Obama and Jindal represent strong polar opposites. The worldviews, political theories and economic paradigms of these two talented, young, smart, non-white politicians could not be more divergent.  Obama has articulated what is in essence a democratic socialist message on the economy, with plans to redistribute even moderate wealth, and a radical social policy that includes staunch support for abortion. His view is that America is not exceptional and that it is in fact "arrogant" and must retreat from global power. Yet the federal government must gain new powers to run our lives at home.

Obama said to the crowd in South Bend, "This is the generation that must find a path back to prosperity and decide how we respond to a global economy that left millions behind even before this crisis hit -- an economy where greed and short-term thinking were too often rewarded at the expense of fairness, and diligence, and an honest day's work." He went on to deliver his standard stump speech extolling the wonders of government.

Jindal on the other hand is in the early stages of articulating not just his pro-life defense of the unborn but his commitment to American strength, market-based economic solutions rather than bailouts, lowering the tax burden, and most interestingly, renewing what he calls "spiritual capital." Spiritual capital is the legacy of Western civilization rooted in the Abrahamic faiths and views that backdrop as essential to the renewal of culture, freedom, and economic growth.

Jindal is not anti-corporate, nor does he use race baiting, although he is himself of humble Indian birth. His parents are from the Punjab and he became a Rhodes scholar. Jindal's philosophical orientation is more akin to traditional Catholic/Christian values, subsidiarity -- doing things at the most local level -- and he is opposed to out of control government spending, bailouts of bankrupt firms and industries, cronyism and all pork barrel spending.

Two speeches at graduations to prestigious Catholic schools provided an opportunity for platitudes, but instead illustrated starkly contrasting visions. One is patently secular and deifies the State, disrespecting the Church and its encyclicals, while the other embraces faith and calls on its transcending power to restore national civility, liberty, and greatness. One is populist to a degree not seen in decades while the other is rooted in timeless principles. These commencement speeches signal not just the beginning of summer. The 2012 campaign season is right around the corner.

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About the Author

Theodore Roosevelt Malloch is the author of Spiritual Enterprise: Doing Virtuous Business (Encounter Books) and CEO of The Roosevelt Group, a global strategy firm.