Rather than watch Barack Obama’s speech, I contented myself with writing an article timed for the day of — saying “When he goes out this evening to address the Democratic National Convention, this is what he will see, hear, and say.”
But now that I have read the text of his speech, I must admit to finding one surprise. It wasn’t one of those off-hand remarks that provide a sudden window to the mind of the speaker (e.g. “If you have a business, you didn’t build that,” or, “I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody”).
To the contrary, this was a carefully crafted paragraph — unexceptional in itself but standing in sharp contradiction to everything that went before it and everything that came after. Call it Insert A. Here is the passage without the oddball paragraph:
This is the choice we now face. This is what the election comes down to. Over and over, we have been told by our opponents that bigger tax cuts and fewer regulations are the only way; that since government can’t do everything, it should do almost nothing. If you can’t afford health insurance, hope that you don’t get sick. If a company releases toxic pollution into the air your children breathe, well, that’s just the price of progress. If you can’t afford to start a business or go to college, take my opponent’s advice and “borrow money from your parents.”
You know what? That’s not who we are. That’s not what this country’s about.
We believe in something called citizenship — word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations.
We believe that when a CEO pays his autoworkers enough to buy the cars that they build, the whole company does better.
We believe that when a family can no longer be tricked into signing a mortgage they can’t afford, that family is protected, but so is the value of other people’s homes, and so is the entire economy.
We believe that a little girl who’s offered an escape from poverty by a great teacher or a grant for college could become the founder of the next Google, or the scientist who cures cancer, or the President of the United States — and it’s in our power to give here that chance.
You can criticize the staleness of the prose and the banality of the sentiments in that passage. But at least everything hangs together. Here we have someone who thoroughly rejects the idea that free markets work on the basis of voluntary exchange for mutual benefit. This is a person who thinks that mean-spirited CEOs are free (even in an open and competitive marketplace) to underpay their workers and that bankers are so stupid as to want to make loans that they know they will have to write off.
Here’s the middle of the passage with the Insert A paste-in (with new words in italics):
You know what? That’s not who we are. That’s not what the country’s about.
As Americans, we believe we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights — rights that no man or government can take away. We insist on personal responsibility and we celebrate individual initiative. We’re not entitled to success. We have to earn it. We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk-takers who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system — the greatest engine of growth and prosperity the world has ever known.
But we also believe in, etc.
Imagine that: Barack Obama as the champion of the concepts of earned success and free enterprise — of personal responsibility and individual initiative — and of inalienable rights that no government can take away!!! Even if I did not anticipate this part of the speech, I am willing to bet that you heard it here first.