Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
30May/140

The True American

ArendtWeekendReading

Anand Giridharadas has written a thoughtful and thrilling new book, The True American. It tells two interlocking stories of Rais Bhuiyan and Mark Stroman. Bhuiyan is a striver, an immigrant from Bangladesh, and a Muslim. Stroman is a drug addict, a charmer, and a Texan who is hateful and broken. Shortly after the attacks on 9/11, Stroman goes on a rampage and shoots three people he thinks are Muslim. Two die. Rais Bhuiyan, the third, is badly wounded; losing his right eye, his face becomes permanently disfigured.

Giridharadas chronicles their lives. Rais seeks to rise above his adversity and live the American dream; Stroman finds God and redemption on death row. Ultimately Rais forgives Stroman and wages an international campaign to stop his execution. The story risks being cliché at every turn. But Giridharadas discovers amidst banality a brutal, shattering, and also inspiring window into modern America.

473823153_640

Reviewing The True American in the Washington Post, Eboo Patel writes:

The premise is simple — Bhuiyan forgives his attacker in the name of Islam and then wages a campaign to save Stroman from execution. An inspiring enough story, surely worthy of the flurry of news coverage it received around the 10th anniversary of 9/11. But a book-length treatment, especially with a title like “The True American,” runs the risk of being taken for a middle-school morality tale. Simply put, it’s not. This is a haunting book, one that penetrates deep into the lives of two complex individuals and reveals the worlds that made them.

Patel rightly sees that the richness of Giridharadas’ book is the way he offers two very different Americans in attempting to explore the sense of what it means to be a “true American.”

The individual stories are certainly compelling, but what sets this book apart is when it zooms out and illuminates the broader social context of the lives at the center. We get Bhuiyan’s immigrant eyes on America: his gratitude for the upward opportunities provided to the resourceful and industrious; his despair for those who have fallen into what he calls the SAD life, beholden to empty sex, alcohol and drugs; and above all his confusion at how so many Americans seem abandoned, unable to find family members to co-sign for car loans or take them in when they have no place to go.

Rais Bhuiyan is at once enraptured by the America he adopts and also aghast at the loneliness and dysfunction he witnesses – something so different from his life back home. Poverty in Bangladesh was much worse than in America, but the lives of the poor in the USA are worse than back home.

If he had only recently settled in America and already had friends who would sign on a lease for him, how could people who had been here for donkey’s years lack such connections? Rais saw his colleagues having to beg for rides or commute by foot on major roads in the searing heat, and he wondered why their family members weren’t picking them up—especially the young women. He felt offended on their behalf.

And Rais has more than a bit of that immigrant hubris, a frustration bordering on contempt for Americans who want a good life without struggle:

Ever since his arrival in America, a part of Rais—at first a small part, swollen by time—had wanted to grab these people, shake them by the shoulders, and wake them from their misery and depression and self-loathing and family-breaking and money-grabbing and loneliness and violence. He wanted to tell them: “Look, why you guys are still suffering? If I can overcome, if I can turn around my life, with the mercy of God, in this country, from that negative point to this point—you guys are born here, you guys speak better than me, you understand the culture better than me, you have more networks, more resource. Why can’t you stay in the same place—even going down day by day? Why you have to struggle on a regular basis, just to survive?

As Rais resolves to forgive Stroman for his violence, Giridharadas shows that the real agenda is more grand. Rais is out to save America from itself. In seeking to save him, Rais wants not only to save Stroman’s life from what in Texas is called “The Death,” but to save his soul and the souls of millions of other Americans like him. Rais, a newly minted American, wants to “stay true to this vision of waking his countrymen up.” The True American is a story of regeneration, a call to America from its optimistic and immigrant soul, to reclaim its freedom.

[Rais] wanted, he said, to save them from childhoods with “no peace at home”; from an idea of life centered on “sex, alcohol, and drugs, starting from your teenage until when you grow up”; from people staying poor “generation-wise because of lack of education”; from members of an overclass that “never even know what is happening in the poor people’s life”; from “lack of in-touch with family”; from stressed and fragmented parents “busy with their own lives,” who tell their young to “just feel comfortable, just make your life happy” and thus nudge them towards things like drugs; from people who are “free, but the way they’re living their life, they’re losing their freedom.”

473823153_640

Meanwhile, Giridharadas paints an equally nuanced and at times compelling picture of Mark Stroman. Stroman insists that he is no racist because he is married to a Mexican. Yet he spouts racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Here is Patel:

It would be easy to dismiss Stroman, with his Aryan Nation friends and swastika tattoo, as simply a murderous white supremacist. But Giridharadas spends time with Stroman’s kids, visiting his son Robert in the maximum-security area of a maximum-security prison, and hanging out in a halfway house with Stroman’s first wife and their daughters as they try to beat addictions and hold down fast-food jobs. The Stromans’ problems are replicated throughout lower-class America: the uncertain parentages and anarchic families, the ubiquity of meth, the race-gang-dominated prisons, the sex that begins at the turn of puberty.

Giridharadas also tells the story of the friendship between Stroman and Ilan Ziv, an Israeli documentarian who comes to befriend Stroman. Ziv tells of the days after the killing of 13 soldiers at the Fort Hood military base by an American Muslim of Palestinian provenance.

[T]hey spoke of a book that Stroman had been reading and had grown infatuated with: Man’s Search for Meaning, by the Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. It was not clear whether he had read it because of his relationship with Ziv. … They spoke at length about the book that first day. There was much in the work—born of Frankl’s years in Nazi concentration camps and his investigation of how people survive the direst circumstances—to calm a man in Stroman’s situation: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Stroman, who used to spout terms like “nigger-loving Jew,” now found himself drawn to one Jewish man’s story of inner transformation: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

Yet even as Stroman spoke of his power to change and the “responsibility he bears toward a human being,” he remains also the bigot he has been. When he learns of the Fort Hood shootings,

that news of the attack had reawakened the specter of 9/11 for him and roused his dormant hatred of Muslims, whom he still thought to be evil. “You know me and Muslims,” Stroman snarled.

473823153_640

Ziv responds angrily and honestly:

“I looked him in the eye,” Ziv said, “and I say, ‘You know what, Mark? You’re a fucked-up person, and now I see how fucked you are,’ because that’s the way we talked. I said, ‘I see how fucked-up because you know what your problem is? You don’t see people. You see groups, right? You see groups, and I see people. And that person who did this killing is a very fucked-up individual. From everyone’s perspective, you’re a very fucked-up person. Nobody would say you’re white and you’re Christian, and all white Christians are fucked up. You’re fucked up.’”

Stroman looked at Ziv for the longest time and finally said, “So this is what they did to the Jews, right?”

Giridharadas has written an excellent book about America, hate, and redemption. At once despairing of and affirming the American dream, The True American is your Weekend Read.  You can read an excerpt here. Better yet, order The True American here.

2Dec/131

Amor Mundi 12/1/13

Arendtamormundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

The Unwinding

unwin2George Packer’s The Unwinding, just won the National Book Award for non-fiction. The award is deeply deserved; the book is as subtle as it is searing, a brilliantly told series of interlocking tales of the moral and institutional hollowing out of the American dream. Two new reviews get its importance. One is by Jim Sleeper: “The inward-looking force in [Packer’s] portraits of individual Americans in his book The Unwinding is strong enough to unsettle and even crack the thick crust of conformity to the "new normal" into which most of us have been baked, half-consciously, since around 1980. By "thick crust," I mean a regime, really, of casino-financing at work; of big-business' degradation of our daily and political choices using consumer marketing, self-marketing, and predatory marketing; and of Orwellian "national-security" violations of faith in authority that, taken together, comprise a system that few people anywhere on the political spectrum still feel is legitimate or sustainable but that no one knows how to escape, other than through "every man for himself" tactics that make matters worse.”  A second review, by Thomas Franks, gets to the heart of Packer’s approach: “Until now, to write about the pauperization of America has always been a political deed. This is because what Packer calls “the unwinding” was not an act of nature; it was a work of ideology. It is something that has been done to us by public officials that a lot of us voted for. Draining out this aspect of the genre is Packer’s accomplishment, the move that separates his book from the thousand similar efforts that I mentioned above. It is, strictly speaking, what makes his contribution eligible for the National Book Award while an equally transcendent book like Deer Hunting with Jesus is ignored by bien-pensant critics and prize juries alike. Packer says what dozens of others have said before, but he does it in a way that everyone can see is “art”; in a way that avoids giving offense.”’

Margarethe von Trotta on Hannah Arendt

dvd“The light that Hannah Arendt’s work brought into the world still shines. And because her work is invoked by an ever-increasing number of people, it becomes brighter every day. In a time when most felt obligated to adhere to a specific ideology, Arendt was a shining example of someone who remained true to her unique perspective on the world.” So begins Margarethe von Trotta’s essay on Hannah Arendt that introduces the special edition booklet that accompanies the just-released DVD and Blu-Ray Disks. You can get a copy of the DVD or Blu-Ray disks now for a limited time with your membership in the Hannah Arendt Center at the $100 level or higher.

Naming a Thing

metIn an essay about his own discovery of the perfect description of a thing for which there is no proper word, Brad Leithauser considers the excellence of a metaphor: "Back in college, in one of those roots-of-civilization survey courses that flourished in the days before the near-simultaneous birth of irony and multiculturalism, I was told that the greatest similes and metaphors belonged to Homer. It’s in Book 1 of the Iliad that we’re given our first taste of the “wine-dark sea,” and I don’t suppose anyone ever has better evoked the mesmerizing, inebriating thoughts that marine motion moves in us. In Book 8, we come upon the famous image where the Trojan campfires become constellations. And in a number of places, Achilles is likened to a lion. But as equations go (ocean equals wine, campfire equals constellation, leading warrior equals king of beasts), these don’t represent leaps of any sizable or significant distance. To my mind, the deeper pleasure in metaphor lies in creating unexpected equations, perceiving likeness in the land of unlikeness.” If you want to pursue the importance of metaphors in thinking, look at Arendt’s account of metaphors in chapters 11-12 of The Life of the Mind: “the function of metaphor as “turning the mind back to the sensory world in order to illuminate the mind’s non-sensory experiences for which there are no words in any language.”

What is Politics?

conference“What is Politics?” is the question taken up by a conference co-sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center and the Villa Aurora in Los Angeles earlier this month. Hannah Arendt dedicated her work to the reinvention of the public realm and to freedom in political action. Today, as in the 1960s, her ideas inspire theoretical debates as well as civil political initiatives. The conference, with lectures by experts on Hannah Arendt’s work, focused on the influence of her European-American experience and the particular importance of transcultural exchange in Arendt’s theory of political action. Speakers included Marie Luise Knott, Anson Rabinbach; Princeton University, Peg Birmingham; DePaul University, Robert Harrison; Stanford University, Martín Plot; California Institute of the Arts, Wolfgang Heuer; Freie Universität Berlin, and Roger Berkowitz; Bard College. Most of the talks were videotaped and are now online. They are your weekend read. Happy Thanksgiving.

The Controversy of Eichmann in Jerusalem, Burning Strong Even 50 Years Later

eijThis past week in the New York Times book review, two eminent journalists took their turn at describing why Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem remains controversial and meaningful. For Adam Kirsch, it's all about a difference in feeling, "It’s not hard to see that for Arendt, this stringency was a form of respect. By holding Jews to what she conceived to be the highest professional and personal standards, she was treating them as full moral persons." Rivka Galchin sees in Arendt’s critics a sometimes willful, misunderstanding: "Arendt does not argue that the Holocaust and its unspeakable horrors are banal. She does not endorse or believe Eichmann’s presentation of himself as a man beset by the tricky virtue of obedience. And she does not say that the evil she saw in Eichmann is the only kind of evil. Many of the objections to her work are based on arguments never made."

The Frankenbook

transRowland Manthorpe considers the future of the multimedia book, in the wake of a Device 6, a kind of literary video game: "As gamers and readers come together, and devices offer new possibilities for interactive texts, books may come to resemble games. Eventually, reading a novel could be like playing something like Device 6. Imagine Philip Glass writing a creepy-as-hell score for the new Stephen King, with music that comes in just at the right moment: Such a thing could be done, right now, because when a reader is reading on a smartphone, it is possible to know exactly where they are in a text. Or imagine a novel that takes over your phone and starts sending you text messages. Once writers and publishers start to engage seriously with tablet technology, the possibilities are vast."

Lilla's Misreading Redux

arenYou can read Roger Berkowitz’s Letter in the New York Review of Books, along with Lilla’s response. Berkowitz writes: “Lilla’s argument misleads when addressing Arendt’s view that Eichmann exemplified “the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.” Lilla accuses Arendt of calling Eichmann “a cog”; in fact, she argues otherwise, writing—in sections IV, VII, and the epilogue to Eichmann in Jerusalem—that he went beyond orders, enthusiastically supporting the Final Solution. Lilla writes that Arendt “made evil seem banal”; in fact, Arendt contrasts the horrific evil of the Holocaust with Eichmann’s inability to think from the perspective of others—banality not of what he did (evil), but of his person. That “evil violates a natural harmony” is, Arendt writes, the nonbanal and “supreme justification” for why Eichmann must be executed.” Lilla continues to enlist Bettina Stangneth and her excellent book, Eichmann vor Jerusalem, to discredit Arendt’s argument about the banality of evil. But Stangneth does nothing of the sort; on the contrary, she explicitly credits Arendt and refuses to say that her book disproves Arendt, precisely the claim Lilla makes.

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Wolfgang Heuer examines the correlation between personality and human thought and action. The weekend read revisits the recent conference at Villa Aurora in LA on Hannah Arendt, "What is Politics?"

14Oct/130

Amor Mundi – 10/13/13

Arendtamormundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor MundiLove of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

The Educated Citizen in Washington

rogerRoger Berkowitz opened the Arendt Center Conference "Failing Fast: The Educated Citizen in Crisis": "In the early years of our federal-constitutional-democratic-republican experiment, cobblers, lawyers, and yeoman farmers participated in Town Hall meetings. Today, few of us have the experience or the desire to govern and we have lost the habit of weighing and judging those issues that define our body politic. Why is this so? Are we suffering an institutional failure to make clear that participation in governance is a personal responsibility? Do the size and complexity of bureaucratic government mean that individuals are so removed from the levers of power that engaged citizenship is rationally understood to be a waste of time? Or do gerrymandered districts with homogenous populations insulate congressmen from the need for compromise? Whatever the cause, educated elites  are contemptuous of common people and increasingly imagine that the American people are no longer qualified for self-government; and the American people, for their part, increasingly distrust the educated elite that has consistently failed to deliver the dream of a well-managed government that provides social services cheaply and efficiently. It is against this background that we are here to think about 'The Educated Citizen in Crisis.'  Over the next two days, we will ask: What would an educated citizen look like today? Read the whole talk; you can also watch his speech and the whole conference here.

When You Need a Job for Job Training

jobClare McCann points to a surprising fact about government student loans: "Most people typically have undergraduates in mind when they think about the federal loan program, but in reality, the program is nearly as much about financing graduate studies as it is about undergraduate programs. Sure, graduate school can cost more than an undergraduate education, but that's not necessarily why graduate loans feature prominently in the breakdown. Actually, it's because the federal government does not limit how much graduate students can borrow." Perhaps more so than loans for undergraduates, loans to students entering grad programs can lead to enormous debt loads that they can't afford.

The Internet Arendt

peopleDavid Palumbo-Liu considers the role of the public intellectual in the internet age. He argues that amongst the proliferation of intellectual voices on the web, the role of the public intellectual must change:  "A public intellectual today would thus not simply be one filter alongside others, an arbiter of opinion and supplier of diversity. Instead, today's public intellectual is a provocateur who also provides a compelling reason to think differently. This distinction is critical." In other words, what we need are more public intellectuals who write and think as did Hannah Arendt.

Dual Citizenship

photoAndrea Bruce's new photo project, Afghan Americans, depicts a group of people with a particular dual identity alongside quotes from its subjects. This work grew out of work she did as a photojournalist in Iraq, where she sought to "show that Iraqis weren't all that different from our readers... that they, too, love their children. They care about education. They have to deal with traffic and health care in ways that are surprisingly similar to Americans."

Ceasing to Make Sense of the World

womanIn an interview about, among other things, whether a machine can help us separate art we like from art we don't, essayist Michelle Orange answers a question about why we like formulaic art, and the consequences of that preference: "In the 1960s there was a great hunger for tumult and experiment at the movies that matched the times. I often wonder about A.O. Scott's line on The Avengers: 'The price of entertainment is obedience.' When did it happen that instead of gathering to dream together, we trudged to the movies to get the shit entertained out of us? Robert Stone has a great line: 'The way people go crazy is that they cease to have narratives, and the way a culture goes crazy is that it ceases to be able to tell stories.' In American culture you find a mania for stories - the internet, social media, the news cycle, endless cable channels. But I wonder if being fed in constant junk-nutrition fragments only intensifies that appetite, because what it really wants is something huge and coherent, some structuring context."

Featured Events

October 16, 2013

A Lecture by Nicole Dewandre: "Rethinking the Human Condition in a Hyperconnected Era"

Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito '60 Auditorium

Learn more here.

 

October 27, 2013

Blogging and the New Public Intellectual - A Conversation with Jay Rosen and Megan Garber

Bard Graduate Center

Learn more here.

blogging

 

October 28, 2013
Seth Lipsky Lunchtime Talk on Opinion Journalism
Arendt Center

Learn more here.

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

On the Arendt Center Blog this week, read "Irony as an Antidote to Thoughtlessness," a discussion of Arendt's ironic stance in Eichmann in Jerusalem by Arendt Center Fellow Michiel Bot. And Jeffrey Champlin reviews Margaret Canovan's classic essay, "Arendt, Rousseau, and Human Plurality in Politics."

22Jan/130

Reflections on an Inaugural Address

I watched President Obama’s second Inaugural Address with my seven-year-old daughter. She had just completed a letter to the President—something she had been composing all week. She was glued to the TV. I found myself tearing up at times, as I do and should do at all such events. “The Star Spangled Banner” by Beyonce was… well, my daughter stood up right there in the living room, so I followed suit. The Inaugural Poem by Richard Blanco began strong—I found the first two stanzas powerful and lyrical.

The invocation of “One sun rose on us today,” is Whitmanesque, as is: “My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors.” That second verse really grabbed me:

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yearning to life, crescendoing into our day,
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.

I was hooked here, with Blanco’s rendition of a motley American life guided by a rising sun. But the poem dragged for me. I lost the thread. Still, I am so grateful for the continued presence of poetry at inaugural events. They remind us that the Presidency and the country is more than policy and prose.

In the President’s speech itself, there was too much politics, some prose, and a bit of poetry. There were a few stirring lines affirming the grand dreams of the United States. His opening was pitch perfect:

 Each time we gather to inaugurate a President we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution.  We affirm the promise of our democracy.  We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names.  What makes us exceptional -- what makes us American -- is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Storytelling, Hannah Arendt knew, was at the essence of politics. The President understands the importance and power of a story and the story of America is one of the dream of democracy and freedom. He tells it well. Some will balk at his full embrace of American exceptionalism. They are right to when such a stand leads to arrogance. But American exceptionalism is also, and more importantly, a tale of the dream of the Promised Land. It is an ever-receding dream, as all such dreams are. But that means only that the dream must be kept alive. That is one of the purposes of Presidential Inaugurations, and President Obama did that beautifully.

Another stirring section invoked the freedom struggles of the past struggles for equality.

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

The President, our nation’s first black President now elected for a second term, sought to raise the aspiration for racial and sexual equality to the pantheon of our Constitutional truths. Including the struggles of gay Americans—he mentioned gay rights for the first time in an inaugural address—the President powerfully rooted the inclusivity of the American dream in the sacred words of the Declaration of Independence and set them in the hallowed grounds of constitutional ideals.

When later I saw the headlines and the blogs, it was as if I had watched a different speech. Supposedly the President offered an “aggressive” speech. And he came out as unabashedly liberal.  This is because he mentioned climate change (saying nothing about how he will approach it) and gay rights. Oh, and many saw it as unabashedly liberal when the President said:

For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class.  We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship.  We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.

How is it “liberal” to value the middle-class and pride in work? There was nearly nothing in this talk about the poor or welfare. It was about working Americans, the people whose labor builds the bridges and protects are people. And it was about the American dream of income and class mobility. How is that liberal? Is it liberal to insist on a progressive income tax? Granted, it is liberal to insist that we raise revenue without cutting expenses. But where was that said?

And then there are the swarm of comments and critiques about the President’s defense of entitlements.  Well here is what he said:

We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time.  So we must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, reach higher.  But while the means will change, our purpose endures:  a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American.  That is what this moment requires.  That is what will give real meaning to our creed.   We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity.  We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.  But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.  (Applause.)  For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn.

If I read this correctly, the President is here saying: We spend too much on health care and we need to cut our deficit. Outworn programs must change and we need innovation and technology to improve our schools even as we reduce the cost of education. We must, he says, “make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.”  Yet we must do so without abandoning the nation’s creed: the every American has equal worth and dignity. This is a call for changing and rethinking entitlements while cutting their cost. It is pragmatic and yet sensible. How is it liberal? Is it now liberal to believe in social security and Medicare? Show me any nationally influential conservative who will do away with these programs? Reform them, yes. But abandon them?

More than a liberal, the President sounded like a constitutional law professor. He laid out broad principles. We must care for our fellow citizens. But he left open the way that we might do so.

Perhaps the most problematic section of the President’s speech is this one:

We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few.  We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm.  The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us.  They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.

Here the President might sound liberal. But what is he saying? He is raising the entitlement programs of the New Deal to Constitutional status, saying that these programs are part of the American way of life. He is not wrong. No Republican—not Reagan, not Romney, not Paul Ryan—proposes getting rid of these programs. They have become part of the American way of life.

That said, these programs are not unproblematic. The President might say that “these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.” But saying it does not make it true. There are times when these programs care for the sick and unfortunate. And yet there are no doubt times and places where the social safety net leads to taking and weakness. It is also true that these programs are taking up ever more of our national budget, as this chart from the Government Accounting Office makes clear.

The President knows we need to cut entitlements. He has said so repeatedly. His greatest liability now is not that he can’t control opposition Republicans. It is that he doesn’t seem able or willing to exert leadership over the members of his own party in coming up with a meaningful approach to bring our entitlement spending—spending that is necessary and rightly part of our constitutional DNA—into the modern era. That is the President’s challenge.

The problem with President Obama’s speech was not that it was liberal. Rather, what the President failed to offer was a meaningful example of leadership in doing what he knows we must do: Rethinking, re-imagining, and re-forming our entitlement programs to bring them into the modern era.

-RB