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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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