The Newtown Speech in Historical Context

President Obama’s speech tonight in Newtown, CT was the best of his political career. Every word was heartfelt and courageous; he consoled a grieving community, but was entirely unafraid to talk about the bigger – dare I say it – political picture. Read the transcript for yourself, but to my ears, a big portion of the President’s remarks implicitly advocated for a big push on gun control legislation. This came as a surprise to many, and on Twitter and television, people of all stripes have begun to ask where this speech – in light, particularly, of the aforementioned section –  might stand in the annals of presidential rhetoric. Many are comparing it to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which rings true for me largely on structural grounds. While at least 10 minutes longer, President Obama’s speech was striking in its brevity, and it had the same humble effectiveness that the Gettysburg Address did. An intriguing parity for sure, but the speeches are starkly different substantively.

I think the best comparison is to Lyndon Johnson’s March 1965 speech on voting rights legislation. While significantly longer (more than 45 minutes in total), Johnson’s remarks share a lot substantively and contextually with President Obama’s. Johnson also spoke mere days after a tragedy; a week before his address to Congress, 600 marchers had been beaten and attacked with tear gas by state police as they walked peacefully across a bridge in Selma, Alabama. The images shocked the conscience of the nation, and Johnson used that shock to channel political energy for what would become the Voting Rights Act of 1965:

What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America…it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.

One paragraph from President Obama’s speech seemed strikingly similar to me:

There have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, all across America. We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.

Both men addressed a nation in shock, and both men elected to address a tenuous political issue in response. Johnson took on the last untouched bastion of racial discrimination, voting rights, and President Obama seems to be preparing to take on gun control.

Both speeches are also intensely personal. While Johnson enumerated clear policy aims, the most moving portion of his address came when he described his work as a teacher in Cotulla, Texas:

My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla, Texas, in a small Mexican-American school…My students were poor and they often came to class without breakfast, hungry…Somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child…I never thought then, in 1928, that I would be standing here in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country. But now I do have that chance—and I’ll let you in on a secret—I mean to use it.

President Obama’s rhetoric on parenthood was similarly evocative:

This is our first task, caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged…And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we’re meeting our obligations? I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer’s no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change.

Neither man feared the cries that they were “politicizing a tragedy.” They understood that in moments of great sadness, Americans look for more than sympathy from their leaders. They look for action.

Every once in a while, at home or in the car, I pull up Johnson’s speech on my iPhone. His words remind me of the moral courage our greatest leaders can deploy when they need to, and the incredible power such displays can have. It never ceases to amaze me how much passion Johnson displayed that night. As long as I’ve listened to the speech, I’ve regarded it as a uniquely fervent address by an American president. Now, more than 45 years later, it finally has some competition. I hope President Obama’s words will have a similar impact on our politics in the weeks and months ahead.

Robert Caro first drew my attention to Johnson’s speech in an August 2008 opinion piece. It is definitely worth a read. 


Romney’s [Possibly] Bad Political Decision

Earlier today, I posted that Governor Romney’s decision to withhold additional tax returns (and make a huge spectacle about it) was a bad political decision. There’s a burgeoning debate about whether my assertions are correct – always valid – and I thought I’d expand on my thinking a bit here.

The most powerful evidence that Romney’s resistance will come back to haunt him might lie in President Obama’s experience with the ‘birther’ movement. You can’t draw many connections between the idiotic, nonsensical debate over Obama’s long-form birth certificate and the current issues with Governor Romney’s tax returns, but I see one: stubbornness. Both Obama and Romney seem to share a certain principled obstinacy; I think Obama’s was more justified, but I also think it blinded him to political reality in the same way it has Romney. As Obama eventually learned, good things don’t always come to politicians who wait. Romney will almost certainly release more tax returns (see here for the most compelling evidence), and when he does, the time he spent standing his ground will make the contents of those returns a much bigger story.

Oddly enough, James Bond might offer the best political advice on this (all imagery aside).

Who You Callin’ Out of Touch?

The Times makes a great point in a short piece on Mitt Romney’s continued refusal to release additional tax return: the former Massachusetts governor is displaying an unusual level of stubbornness in repeatedly refusing to release additional tax returns. He also can’t seem to find a solid argument for his position, especially with the cloud of uncertainty about the exact date of his retirement from Bain looming overhead. Regardless of context, Romney’s latest contention – that releasing more returns might leave his tax records open to distortion – is completely without merit. It’s not only bad politics (it makes him look, in Boston parlance, wicked shady), but it also denies Americans one of their fundamental rights as voters: to receive complete information, as fraught with complexity and contradiction as it may be, and evaluate it for themselves. Romney spends a lot of time painting President Obama as an out of touch elitist, but the former governor’s unwillingness to let voters consider the merits of various arguments about the meaning and relevance of his tax records speaks volumes about his respect for the nation’s electorate.

Update: A slight expansion of my thinking on the optics of Obama’s decision is here

Cross-Posting: “A Secret Memo, A Secret Panel, A Novel Process”

As you might know, I’m blogging now over at the Carlisle Policy Forum and at Blog Divided. I’m going to try and cross-post what I write over there occasionally, just to give you an idea of what I’m doing. In this case, I’m passing along a post I put up on Sunday night about the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki. Since then, it has received some interesting attention from a former assistant secretary of state and Princeton professor and from The Week magazine. There are some other perspectives in the comments section, posted as recently as today. Here’s the beginning of my post:

“Assassination,” Benjamin Disraeli once said, “has never changed the history of the world.” Whether or not it alters the history of the world – and I think a case can be made that it does – its occurrence and the decisions surrounding it have a tendency to consume our politics. In the past few days, the New York Times and Reuters have reported on, respectively, the existence of a secret memo justifying the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki (an American citizen) and the ‘kill panel’ that designated him a target. The exposure of the logic and process behind the assassination of al-Awlaki in such proximity to the actual event suggests a renewed debate is possible. I see two fundamental questions, not easily answered, arising out of such a conversation. One question, which is general (a hat-tip to Professor Crowley here): what is the government obliged to explain to the public after taking such actions? One question, more specific to the context of this moment: how do such events explain the Obama foreign policy, especially in relation to the rule of law?

The rest is here. Let me know what you think here, at CPF, or on Twitter.

It’s All in the Execution

I enjoyed the speech today immensely.

What I’m not understanding is this attack/compliment that the President’s remarks today “could easily have been delivered by George W. Bush” Well, not with all the words pronounced correctly. That’s besides the point though.

The crux of this argument, summarized well here, seems to be that the President’s endorsement of the “story of self-determination” represents in itself either support or vindication for the foreign policy of the second Bush White House. This contention seems to rest on the argument that much of the rhetoric utilized by “43” and “44” in speaking to and about the Middle East is similar. It’s hard not to dispute this, but also hard to draw from it some grand statement about either Presidency and its policies towards the region.

One commentator singled out the President’s emphasis on democracy as evidence of a new tie between the two Presidents. Really? Remind me, which President said, “we are deeply saddened by the spread of democracy from beyond our shores into the wider world?” None. Every President supports self-government – especially in the democratic form – around the world, and nearly every one says so. To somehow assert that President Bush has the franchise on White House support for developing democracies – and thus Presidents that support them are also supporting him – is just plain disingenuous.

Moreover, while the shared affinity for democratic self-government of Presidents Bush and Obama (and Washington through Clinton, too) may have been on display today, I noticed one significant change. While President Bush’s foreign policy focused on institutions and governments, grasstop foreign policy if you will, as in his Second Inaugural Address:

We will encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people.

President Obama seems much more interested in supporting and defending the citizenry, grassroots if you will, as in the speech today:

In too many countries, a citizen like that young vendor had nowhere to turn  -– no honest judiciary to hear his case; no independent media to give him voice; no credible political party to represent his views; no free and fair election where he could choose his leader.

Both Presidents, obviously, have lapsed into the other camp. President Bush alludes to the “dissidents” in his second Inaugural, and President Obama has obviously made it clear that he is willing to attack tyrannical governments and institutions if need be. However, their main focuses as it relates to developing democracies are as clear as they are opposite.

That said, all of this is about how the man in the Oval Office chooses to execute these policies, not how he articulates them.  President Bush chose to execute his policy emphasis on expanding democracy by using the power of our military to bring down rogue governments, a notion to which in good conscience I cannot completely object. President Obama, on the other hand, has chosen to execute that same emphasis by using the US as a protector of marchers and protestors around the world who are standing up to dictatorial leaders, a notion for which in good conscience I can do little less than cheer. Not only is it sensible in a time of austerity, it is humble and helpful at a time when the US needs to improve its image abroad while simultaneously continuing its mission to eradicate individuals and groups in the Middle East that work against its interests.

If that means the President and I – and hopefully a few other people – support an expansion of some of the principles articulated by President Bush, fine. Let’s just hope it works.

Through Obama, the Reagan Un-Revolution?

Last night, I had the privilege of dining with one of the country’s foremost political commentators. As the author of numerous articles and several books on President Obama, his knowledge of the man and the politician was illuminating in more ways than one. Not to mention the halibut, which was excellent.

More than anything else though – even the halibut – one point made last night has kept me thinking.

Over the course of the past few months, hundreds of news articles have been written about President Obama’s increasing interest in Ronald Reagan. Though he has not – to my knowledge – commented on this peculiar political bedfellowship since the early 2008 primaries, much time, print, and pixel has been dedicated to speculation on the nature of it.

Unsurprisingly, the topic came up in conversation last night. The guest of honor was nice enough to quell my own confusion over the connection; perhaps not so nicely, he replaced confusion with sheer depression.

I’m paraphrasing here, but the gist was: Reagan shifted the political paradigm. Even as a Democrat, you couldn’t make a political argument without coming – to a certain extent – from the free-market perspective. Obama finds this notion attractive; in other words, he would like to be the “Reagan of the left,” and shift the paradigm to the left once more.

A compelling analysis, smartly put. The sad part is, where Reagan was successful, Obama has failed. Sadder still, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of room for improvement, because Obama no longer seems to be trying. What we all saw [read: me, my parents, and anyone willing to respond to my texts and emails] as a campaign designed to redefine our politics has quickly devolved into an administration of capitulation and compromise. Moreover, starting just days after his election, President Obama has consistently chosen appointees and staff who seem more comfortable arguing on Reagan’s terms than creating new terms altogether. The sum total: two years of governing that has largely reinforced the public’s sense of skepticism towards government and those working in it.

It’s not that I’m a purist or an absolutist; I recognize that in a democracy, especially one with over 300 million members, compromises must be made. For instance: though they didn’t contain every provision for which I might have advocated, I felt and still feel that the health insurance and financial regulatory reform laws created in 2010 will serve our country well. Rather, it’s the smaller stuff – the misguided initiative-taking or lack thereof – that really bothers me. It is on this level that, for two years, President Obama has shown he simply isn’t capable of redefining the style or substance of our politics the way Reagan was.

Gun ownership comes to mind as I write this. Since Reagan, Republican talking points on both have largely been the same. In 1975, then-Governor Reagan said:

Our nation was built and civilized by men and women who used guns in self-defense and in pursuit of peace. One wonders indeed, if the rising crime rate, isn’t due as much as anything to the criminal’s instinctive knowledge that the average victim no longer has means of self-protection.

Meanwhile, more than 30 years later, potential 2012 GOP Presidential nominee Sen. John Thune articulated the same logic:

I say to my colleague from New York that if someone who has a concealed carry permit … in the state of South Dakota goes to New York and is in Central Park — Central Park is a much safer place.

This has been their mantra for decades, but rather than finally sweep it away – with the ample evidence contradicting the argument that gun ownership somehow prevents crime – President Obama has remained curiously silent on gun control in its entirety. No speeches, proposals, meetings, or even “unconfirmed reports.” So much for shifting the political playing field to the left.

Gun ownership is far from the only political issue on which President Obama has conceded the liberal argument, but at 637 words, to expound on a few more would likely be overkill. Federal worker pay, judicial appointments, and economic policy all come to mind almost immediately, though.

In summary, my commentator-cum-dining companion seems right about the intentions of President Obama in aspiring to be a kind of liberal Ronald Reagan. Where said commentator stopped, and where I start off, is whether one might ever realistically hope that Obama can achieve the same kind of transformative presidency Reaganites can – for better or worse – claim. It is with sadness that I thought it last night and sadness that I write it now: if Democrats are seeking the mantle of “transformative politics,” as Roosevelt did in 1932 and as Kennedy did in 1960, I think they should look past Barack Obama.