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Was Obama’s uplifting speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention fundamentally wrong?

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Barack Obama first came to national attention when he delivered the keynote address at the Democratic Convention of 2004 (above), a positive oration that emphasized the principles that unite, rather than divide, the American people.

He said:

Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes.

Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.

The pundits, the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too:

We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States.

We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States.

There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq.

We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

That speech almost immediately made Obama, who until then was a relatively obscure state senator from Illinois, the subject of presidential speculation in some quarters. And, indeed, he went on to win two terms in the White House.

But now, almost nine years later, Charles Pierce ARGUES that the current gun-control debate, for example, represents a “practical refutation of the speech that made him [Obama] famous”:

It turns out there is a red America and a blue America. It turns out that there is a conservative America and a liberal America. It turns out that the things that divide us are stronger than the things that unite us. Or, at least, that the things that divide us are more politically salient than the things that unite us. The failure on guns is the last, final refutation of what Barack Obama said he believed about the people of this county.

It always depended on the notion that we were all together in the creative process of self-government. The fact is, most of us aren’t. Most of us have checked out. At the encouragement of two generations of ambitious politicians, we have accepted the notion that “government” is something alien, and therefore that it is something we cannot influence. You tell me that 91 percent of Americans support background checks. Wonderful. Put them on the ballot. They’ll pass, but only 40 percent of the eligible voters will bother to go to the polls, so where’s the danger to anyone in acting contrary to the expressed public will? Who does Mitch McConnell really fear in this particular controversy? He knows that there is a solid, active core of support behind the work he’s doing frustrating the expressed public will.

This is the fool’s gold that this president has been chasing ever since he broke onto the scene. He staked his entire career — and certainly, his entire presidency — on the notion that the right person at the right time could heal the “divisions” in our society — which, he told us, were not the real products of our politics, but the temporary fever dreams of a country led astray. The fact is that those “divisions” are our politics. They’re all we have, since we have determined as a political entity, that politics and government are a show, that nothing is permanent, that the scoreboard starts at zero every day. Who will win the morning?

I disagree with some of Pierce’s points, but his argument strikes me as food for thought.

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21 Comments

  1. Pierce is simply naive.

    Obama has done quite a bit to successfully lead as a centrist conciliator and not an idealogue, including: sidelining environmental issues; stepping up the drone program; generously funding the DoD; pushing for a Grand Bargain on fiscal issues; embracing conservative ideas like the individual mandate for ObamaCare and not single payer; backing off on closing Guantanamo; waiting for public opinion to shift before embracing gay marriage; and nominating moderate Republicans like Gates and Hagel for key Cabinet positions.

    The Republicans have responded by clinging to every possible division, denouncing their own good ideas once Obama agrees with them, and banishing smart moderates like Luger, Bayh and Portman.

    Obama is a politician, first and foremost. In literal terms, his 2004 speech was mostly simplistic treacle, but the underlying political strategy was quite sound. Americans want a leader who embraces the common ground, and will reward the party that embodies this principle.

    So, far from “fool’s gold”, Obama’s 2004 philosophy has resulted in a clear second term mandate and a marginalized Republican Party nine years later. His approach forced them to choose between being responsible partners or out-of-touch extremists, and they gleefully chose the latter, to their own detriment.

    One other often overlooked factor has helped him as well: the Obama Administration is virtually scandal-free so far, despite every effort to gin one up by rabid partisans like Issa. They’re left to cling to birther lunacy and veiled racism, reinforcing their extreme image.

  2. Neftali

    I found myself nodding in agreement with Luke’s well presented analysis, until I read the last sentence.

    Saying the Republicans are left to cling to birther lunacy and veiled racism is like saying the Democrats are clinging to a 90% tax on the rich and endorsing Occupy Wall Street destruction of public and private property, defecating on police cars, and concealed rapes.

  3. Neftali: I think Luke’s last sentence was pretty much spot-on.

    There is far, far more birtherism and veiled racism among Republicans than there is support for defecating on police cars and concealed rapes among Democrats.

    Besides, that stuff about “concealed rapes” is nonsensical. Where did you get that crap?

  4. Well stated, Luke, but there will be those and probably in this forum, who will claim that Obama has been the obstructionist. I’ve been so disappointed in Obama’s seeking the middle ground on so many issues and his lack of desire to clean up Wall Street. I so much wanted him to be an FDR type, but he comes off more like tough talker that eventually gives in, again and again and again.

    I know a woman who went to school with him at Harvard. She said he was very much the middle ground seeker even back then.

    Sometimes I think there’s a greater agenda in place, that only top level leaders, The Roundtable, The Bilderberg Group and Goldman Sachs know the details of. And it is the role of the party heads to bring along their base of voters and to appease them with whatever red meat issues they can, till they get to that goal.

    It’s a whole lot easier for me to believe in some one world government agenda than virgin births, resurrections of dead men and Adam and Eve, that an overwhelming percentage of people buy into without even so much as once of doubt. So who’s being fooled here?

  5. Neftali

    Pat – Google “Occupy Wall Street rape”, there are plenty of stories to chose from. I guess I should have included 9/11 truthers. There are just as many of them on the left as their is racists on the right.

    Robert – Bilderberg Conspiracy stuff is no better than the religious stuff you are against.

  6. Neftali, so you’re saying the Bilderberg doesn’t exist? You saying they don’t play a role in setting the worldwide political agenda’s?

  7. Thanks Nef. To keep with the prevailing theme, I added that last teasing sentence so that you would be forced to make a choice. Agree with my analysis or get defensive about the wackos that are so clearly camping under your “big tent”.

    ;-)

    More seriously though, card-carrying Republican leaders do sometimes show their hate for O in subtly racist ways.

    Palin said he doesn’t represent “real” Americans, with his “shuck and jive”.

    Romney said in Michigan, “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate; they know that this is the place that we were born and raised.”

    Gingrich called Obama the “food stamp President.”

    Don’t believe me? How about Colin Powell, who said the GOP has a “dark vein of intolerance” and “still looks down on minorities.”

  8. Craig Knauss

    Nef,

    Apparently someone needs to inform you of this: not all “9/11 truthers” are left wing. A whole lot of them are ultra-rightwing. They don’t blame Bush for 9/11, they blame the Israelis, via Mossad.

    You’d be surprised how many idiots can view footage of the towers coming down, starting from the top, and still say the collapses were caused by explosives in the below ground parking levels. They also say “the fire wasn’t hot enough to melt steel”, ignoring the fact that steel loses strength at about 800 F and kerosene flames can exceed 2000 F, especially when whipped by air rushing up the stairwells while flaming fuel is pouring down them.

  9. Craig, how about Bldg 7?

  10. Be they lefties or righties, all 9/11 truthers are full of crap. They’re conspiratorial descendants of the Grassy Knoll crowd of my early adulthood. Some of them actually are more akin to the dimwits who think the moon landing was faked.

  11. Pat, you’re a good gatekeeper. Excuse me while I go to the bathroom.

  12. Neftali

    Craig Knauss – Not all racists are right wing either. Reverse-racism is quite prevalent. I can’t tell you how many clips I’ve seen where someone said they voted for Obama “because he’s black.” I suppose they deserve a “pass” right now from any real criticism. This country needed a black president, even if he is from the wrong party. A few more in the near future would also help. But we need to get to the point where people are voting for their candidate based upon his/her skill to be President, and not skin color. That goes for both sides. Of course, you are correct about your 9/11 analysis.

    Robert – Bilderburg obviously exists. No, they don’t play a role in setting the worldwide political agenda. Its a meeting of mostly old white men each representing their own country that figure its good to meet to compare notes and gloat to one another. They mostly just hang out and drink a lot more than anything else. The world has too many players and too much people with way too much money outside of anything the Bilderburg people have any influence on. Your conspiracy theories are rather silly.

    Luke – You are correct about Palin’s racist overtones. But Romney’s remarks was just a quick political jab. It not worse than anything Biden has done. Gingrich is correct about Obama being a food stamp president. Hard to dispute that. I have no idea on the figures, but I gather there are probably more total white folk on food stamps than black folk. (or Hispanic, or Asian, or any other ethnicity for that matter…) Newt’s remark was a statement of policy. Colin Powell’s statement unfortunately has some truth to it.

  13. “Don’t believe me? How about Colin Powell, who said the GOP has a “dark vein of intolerance” and “still looks down on minorities.””

    Sure they do Luke. That’s why the hottest speaker on the conservative trail right now is Ben Carson.

    That’s why conservatives so consistently embrace school choice and vouchers which have largely benefitted inner city minority groups.

    Here is a nice article on the topic.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/10/AR2010091002679_2.html?hpid=opinionsbox1&sid=ST2010091201877

    There is no doubt that the contemporary Republican electorate contains some out-and-out bigots, just as the Democratic electorate contains people who hate others on the basis of class. These very real prejudices occasionally erupt into public expression, whether in remarks about Jews over the years by Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton or in shocking signs at tea party rallies.

    But most conservatives have been less concerned with the “hardware” of people’s race or ethnicity and more concerned with the “software” of their values or culture. This is why the white Protestant core of the modern conservative movement has not merely integrated Catholic “ethnics” but also rallied behind the Irish American William F. Buckley and the Italian American Antonin Scalia. Jews, women and Hispanics have been similarly integrated into both its ranks and leadership; indeed, many white conservatives swoon when members of minority groups proudly share their values. This explains why, in the 2008 campaign, conservatives were at least as roused by Obama’s ties to the white former radical William Ayers as the black Jeremiah Wright, both of whom seemed to make a living out of damning America.

    Liberal interpretations that portray modern conservatism as standing athwart the “rights revolution” of the 1960s are hard pressed to explain the growing number of minority and female candidates favored by the conservative rank and file. Marco Rubio, Nikki Haley, Susana Martinez, Brian Sandoval, Tim Scott, Ryan Frazier, Raul Labrador and Jaime Herrera are GOP nominees for the Senate, governorships and the House because Republican voters preferred them over their white opponents. Allen West in Florida and Jon Barela in New Mexico were the consensus GOP choices to run for competitive House seats. Many of these candidates are well-positioned to win their races and help change the public face of modern conservatism.

  14. Craig Knauss

    Robert,

    The WTC buildings were all connected by underground parking levels and transit stations. When WTC1 and WTC2 collapsed, material was compacted below grade and forced through underground cavities, such as the transit center (kinda like stomping on a toothpaste tube). I suspect the material weakened the foundation of Bldg. 7. Furthermore, with WTC1 and WTC2 collapse, all firemains, etc. were severed. I’ve read that Bldg 7 burned internally for days with no means to extinguish the fires. It was initially set on fire by flaming debris from the towers.

    When you see those videos of buildings being blown up in Vegas, etc., you need to remember a few things. 1) Hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds of explosive were used along with miles of wiring. 2) Elaborate sequencing systems are used to bring the buildings down. 3) Preparing for the blasts takes weeks or months of planning and installation work. It’s not done in a couple days. 4) Nobody saw any sign of planted explosives in any of the WTC buildings prior to 9/11. 5) How would the building explosions be coordinated to coincide with a totally independent hijacking of the two planes?

  15. “That’s why conservatives so consistently embrace school choice and vouchers which have largely benefitted inner city minority groups.”

    ::::::::::::::::::::::::::

    Hogwash. Vouchers are both a class and religious issue – subsizing middle class flight to private, often parochial schools instead of reforming and investing in non-sectarian public schools.

    Charters are solely an attempt to use our tax money to turn schools into money making businesses ala many prisons in the south. Leveraging a captive customer base for investor return. Most charter schools fail their kids miserably.

    If conservatives have genuine compassion for the suffering of minority schoolchildren, attack the root cause – endemic poverty. Want another bonus? Less poverty = fewer abortions too.

  16. Neftali

    Luke – Your comments on charter schools are hogwash. Here are the facts on charter school effectiveness.

    http://www.publiccharters.org/About-Charter-Schools/How-Charters-Perform.aspx

    I also strongly encourage you to watch “Waiting for Superman.” Students in low income areas have a lottery to determine which ones are lucky enough to attend the charter schools, where they will excel academically, or be forced to go to public schools, where they have a much higher probability of dropping out.

    Yes, there are a few weird ultra-religious charter schools that teach weird stuff, but they are the exception, not the norm.

    Charter schools succeed because they are not bullied by public sector unions that force unproductive policies such as:

    - Granting tenure after a few short years.
    - Making it very hard to fire under performing teachers
    - Give across the board equal pay raises regardless of teacher performance
    - Excessive benefits that they contribute very little to and force tax payers to pay more each year

    Competition among schools is a good thing. Liberals don’t like it because it forces teachers to actually be accountable for once, and it takes away the power of destructive public sector unions.

  17. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-mcshane/why-i-support-school-choi_b_2575224.html

    3. Empowering parents puts the right people in charge

    Choice is no panacea to the ills of public education. Granting every child in America a voucher or a tuition tax credit scholarship tomorrow would not immediately solve all of the problems of the American public education system. What choice does is establish the conditions under which change can happen. It frees families from an intransigent bureaucracy that has failed to meet their needs for decades. It empowers entrepreneurial school leaders to offer more diverse options than are currently available to students. It puts the power in the hands of students and their families, not in politicians or bureaucrats.

  18. Luke,

    Neftali nailed it.

    I made the point that vouchers are a great example of conservative policies that are specifically NOT racist, in fact quite the opposite. Apparently minority voters in New Jersey agree, despite the fact that white voters are more likely to support public schools.

    Public education in this country is a prime example of the downside of too much union power.

    http://www.blackradionetwork.com/black_nj_voters_support_school_choice_vouchers

  19. Sorry, guys, we just have a fundemental disagreement about the value of unions in public education.

    In my experience, unions serve an essential role in promoting quality schools, effective administrative policies and well-trained educators. Especially in Rockford, where good teachers are the only thing holding the mess of RPS205 together.

    And before you state blindly that unions keep bad teachers from being fired, embrace this fact: nationwide, a greater percentage of teachers are fired in union districts than non-union ones. Many, many weak teachers leave the profession on their own after bad performance reviews (40% in NYC don’t last more than 4 years).

    Plus, it is total BS that teachers get “excessive benefits that they contribute very little to and force tax payers to pay more each year.” These are usually benefits that districts offer to kick the fiscal can down the road – they tell teachers “we can’t afford a cost-of-living raise for you today but we’ll give you better pensions in the future.”

    And did you know that teachers contribute quite a bit to their pension and health plans, especially considering teachers get NO Social Security when they retire? That’s right, none!

    It is solely the state who has underfunded these pensions. Teachers pay right out of their checks, to the state, and cross their fingers it will be there later as promised. This is akin to contributing to a 401K with employer match, then finding out your Vanguard or Schwab can’t afford to give you what’s due on your 65th birthday.

    As for Waiting for Superman, it is largely propoganda – false data used to scapegpoat teachers:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/leonie-haimson/factchecking-waiting-for-_b_802900.html

  20. Craig Knauss

    doc,

    RE: your post on “empowerment” and “choice”. In practice it is overly optimistic.

    Here in Washington state, we have open enrollment at our public schools. Kids are free to attend any public school in the area. The only caveat is that if the school is outside their normal area, they must arrange their own transportation. So a student living in Richland could attend either of the two Richland high schools, or either of the two Pasco high schools, or one of the three Kennewick high schools. However, bust transportation would only be provided to the Richland schools. Oddly enough, there haven’t been a schools abandoned due to poor academics.

    Back in Illinois there was a problem of kids from poor performing districts enrolling in better public schools via bogus residences. Vouchers there would only help the students who could find a space in alternative schools. The parochial schools could pick and choose which students they took and the better suburban schools didn’t have any surplus space that could be used by non-residents.

  21. Neftali

    Luke – I don’t state anything blindly. Unions do indeed keep bad teachers from being fired. Consider the following:

    “Teachers unions have ensured that even with a victory, the process is prohibitively expensive and time-consuming. In the 2006-2007 school year, for example, New York City fired only 10 of its 55,000 tenured teachers. The cost to eliminate those employees averages out to $163,142, according to Education Week. According to the Albany Times Union, the average process for firing a teacher in New York state outside of New York City proper lasts 502 days and costs more than $216,000. In Illinois, Scott Reeder of the Small Newspaper Group found it costs an average of $219,504 in legal fees alone to get a termination case past all the union-supported hurdles. Columbus, Ohio’s own teachers union president admitted to the Associated Press that firing a tenured teacher can cost as much as $50,000. A spokesman for Idaho school administrators told local press that districts have been known to spend “$100,000 or $200,000” in litigation costs just to get rid of a bad teacher.”

    http://teachersunionexposed.com/protecting.php

    (BTW, that whole site is awesome)

    As far as pensions go, I contribute 6% to Social Security, and 14% to my 401K and IRA plans for a total of 20% of my pay. And I won’t get anywhere near the overinflated pensions teachers get by contributing at MOST 10%. I would LOVE to be in their position. Same goes for medical benefits. The amount they contribute compared to what is standard in the private sector does even come close to comparing. The number #1 reason Illinois is bankrupt is overinflated pensions given to teachers.

    Finally, you Huffingtoncompost link refutes absolutely nothing. Its just an elongated tirade about cherry picking a singular statistic offered in the movie. And it does a poor job of that since if anything it just proves how difficult it is to fire a teacher. The film is not propaganda. Its a real life documentary about how public education is failing our inner city children and how private sector alternatives are a viable solution.

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