Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
12Mar/142

The Preferential President

FromtheArendtCenter

There is a fascinating essay over on the Guernica blog, where David Bromwich examines “how Obama became a publicist for his presidency (rather than the president).” In his first term Obama delivered 1,852 separate speeches, comments, or scheduled public remarks and granted 591 interviews. These exceptional numbers, explains Bromwich, were the result of  “magical thinking” on the part of the Obama White House: if the American public heard the president often enough, they would see how sincere and bipartisan he was and accept his policies. An endless string of speeches, road trips, and town hall meetings thus came to serve as a stand-in for the decision-making and confrontation that true leadership requires, and genuine conviction demands. Argues Bromwich: “…The truth is that Obama’s convictions were never strong. He did not find this out until his convictions were tested, and they were not tested until he became president.

Perhaps the thin connection between Obama’s words and his actions does not support the use of the word “conviction” at all. Let us say instead that he mistook his preferences for convictions—and he can still be trusted to tell us what he would prefer to do. Review the record and it will show that his first statement on a given issue generally lays out what he would prefer. Later on, he resigns himself to supporting a lesser evil, which he tells us is temporary and necessary. The creation of a category of permanent prisoners in “this war we’re in” (which he declines to call “the war on terror”) was an early and characteristic instance. Such is Obama’s belief in the power and significance of his own words that, as he judges his own case, saying the right thing is a decent second-best to doing the right thing.”

ob

Bromwich’s reflections call to mind two classic statements of what might be called the nihilism of the modern age—the psychological state in which all values are relative and none may rise from preference to conviction. The first is a fragment from Friedrich Nietzsche’s notebooks composed in 1881-1882. It reads:

…we call good someone who does his heart’s bidding, but also the one who only tends to his duty;
we call good the meek and the reconciled, but also the courageous, unbending, severe;
we call good someone who employs no force against himself, but also the heroes of self-overcoming;
we call good the utterly loyal friend of the true, but also the man of piety, one who transfigures things;
we call good those who are obedient to themselves, but also the pious;
we call good those who are noble and exalted, but also those who do not despise and condescend;
we call good those of joyful spirit, the peaceable, but also those desirous of battle and victory;
we call good those who always want to be first, but also those who do not want to take precedence over anyone in any respect.

As Nietzsche writes elsewhere, “The most extreme form of nihilism would be: that every belief, every holding-as-true, is necessarily false: because there is no true world at all.” To call the President a nihilist is nothing extreme; it is simply to say that he well represents the age in which he lives, an age that is extraordinarily uncomfortable with convictions of any kind. Some believe in God, but too strong a belief in God is unseemly, even fanatic. It is good to believe in democracy, but we recognize the need for stable tyrannies as well. The free market is the best system of economics, but only if it is not too free. We live in a pragmatic age and Obama is our pragmatic President. That is precisely what many like in him. And yet we also want him to lead. In other words, we want strong leadership of a convinced leader and at the same time we want the pragmatic and technocratic malleability of someone with preferences absent convictions.

There is no better expression of this fear basic psychological state of modernity than William Butler Yeats poem, “THE SECOND COMING”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The problem with President Obama is not that he lacks convictions. It is that he doesn’t know that he lacks convictions. And despite what Bromwich writes, the President hasn’t learned this. He still believes that he has strong convictions that Syria cannot use chemical weapons in a civil war against its own people. He still believes that it is intolerable to allow Russia to annex part of a sovereign country. He stands up and makes his strong convictions clear. But then he sits down and refuses to fight for those convictions, proving them beliefs. The point is not that he should fight in Syria or in Ukraine. The point is that he should not be speaking loudly and issuing ultimatums when he lacks the conviction to back them up.

-RB (hat tip Anna Hadfield)

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
27Mar/130

Water and Desert: Perspectives in Education

AredntNola

For two years I taught literature, reading and writing at a public university in one of New York City’s outer Boroughs. Of course having come out of a liberal arts “thinking” institution what I really thought (maybe hoped) I was teaching was new perspectives. Ironically, the challenge that most struck me was not administrative, nor class size or terrible grammar and endless hours of grading, the most pressing obstacle lay in creating a case for the value of “thinking.”

think

I state “case” because I regularly felt like my passions and beliefs, as well as my liberal arts education went on daily trial. I had originally come from a hard-scrabble immigrant reality, but my perception of reality had been altered by my education experience, and as an educator I felt the need to authenticate my progressive (core text) education with my students.

I was regularly reminded that the  immediate world of the “average” student (citizen) with all its pressing, “real” concerns does not immediately open itself to “thought” in the liberal arts sense. We are a specialization, automation, struggling and hyper competitive society. The “learning time” of a student citizen is spent in the acquisition of “marketable,” and differentiating skills, while their “free time” is the opportunity to decompress from, or completely escape the pressures of competitive skill acquisition. The whole cycle is guided by an air of anxiety fostered in our national eduction philosophy, as well as the troubled economy and scattered society at large. I don’t think one can teach the humanities without listening to their students, and listening to the students calls for a deep inventory on the value of “thought” in the humanities sense, and then ultimately in how to most truthfully communicate this value to the students.

I need to add here that my students were quite smart and insightful. This made it even greater of a challenge. Their intelligence was one of realism. I needed to both acknowledge and sway their perspective, as well as my own.

Each semester I began with a close-reading of David Foster Wallace's commencement speech at Kenyon College, “What is Water.” He begins his speech with the parable of two fish swimming by an older fish which as it swims by asks, How is the Water?” The little ones swim on and only later ask each other, “What is water?”  Didactic parable, cliche -- yes -- but Wallace goes on to deconstruct the artifice of commencement speeches, parables, and cliches, and then rebuilds them. Having so skillfully deconstructed them he has invited his listers into the form making, and as he communicates the truth beneath what had earlier seemed lofty or cliche, the listers follow him towards meaning making. Ultimately Wallace states that education is “less about teaching you how to think, and more about teaching you of the choice in what to think about.” To have agency is to be a meaning maker. And as more and more cultural institutions artfully vie for the citizens devotion and loyalty -- politics, religion, but even more so, corporate houses and pop culture designs, in the ever growing noise of institutional marketing the call to choose seems ever more muted.

The choice, for so many students today, is simply in how to most skillfully compartmentalize themselves and their lives in the face of the anxieties of their immediate world. The choice for many young teachers, facing their own set of related anxieties, is in how far are they willing step away from the ideal of learning-living-teaching integration model -- so easy is it today as an educator to simply become disenchanted, frustrated and aloof. Sometimes, “thinking” is the process of choosing what to keep and what to give away.

wallace

Wallace's insightful, no b.s, humorous and sincere tone resonated with my students, that is of course until they found out that Wallace killed himself. Then, that’s what everyone wanted to focus on. I can not blame them. There is a ‘text’ to ‘personal’ mystery, a ‘content’ to ‘context’ disjunction that opens itself at such a revelation, a mystery that the “thinking” mind wants to explore. The modern “thinking” mind draws little separation between the lofty and the sublime, the public and the personal. Such is a byproduct of a generation raised on reality television and celebrity stories. I, in all sincerity cannot judge this. My generation, the X’s who came of age on the cusp of the Millennials, were culturally educated by MTV, The Real World and Road Rules, and thus we crave hip, colorful, appropriately gentrified spaces to occupy -- think of artist collectives, or Facebook and Google working environments (bean bags, chill and chic prescription sunglasses, lounge happy hour with juice bars, untraditional working hours, colorful earth tones). I digress, I meant to make some observation of “thinking.”

I was excited to teach what excited me: I began with Wallace, then Kafka, O’Connor (Flannery or Frank), Platonov, Carver, Babel, Achebe Kundera, Elliot, etc... It is, essentially, the seven sisters freshmen reading list, a popular catalogue of classic stories peppered with some international obscurity. It is the “cool” thing in liberal arts. But, over and over my students came to me complaining that they could not find this relevant to their lives. After such reports I would tweak my lesson plans to give a greater introduction to the works, going deeper into the philosophical tenets of the stories, and into the universal reward of being able to utilize the tools of the thinking, writing mind. Induct, deduct, compare, contrast, relate, “give it greater shape,” I would say. “Breath life into it.”

To have the skills to decipher plot, to record the echo of a narrative, to infer characterization from setting, to understand the complex structure of a character, to be invited to participate in the co-creation of a narrative which gently guides you through action but leaves the moral implications up to the reader. These are “indispensable,” I would advise my students. “Indispensable for human agency.” Some would slowly gravitate to my vision, as I prodded further and further into their motivations for being in school, career, and other ‘relevant’ choice. Yet, they often felt only like visitors in my library, preparing to check out and return to the “default” education thinking mode as soon as the quarter, mid, or end semester exam periods began. The pressures of what they call “the real world” are much stronger then the ghosts of books and introspective thought -- vague, powerless, intangible.

“The real world:” Here I am reminded of the scene from the Matrix when Morpheus unveils to Neo “the desert of the real.” A barren waste land of human energy as only a power source nourished for consumption. The Matrix, I will add here, is based on a work by Jean Baudrillard, a french philosopher who warns of a modern society as a place existing in consumption and entertainment, devoid of meaning making -- the urge towards agency, in hibernation; the map towards meaning, defunct. In describing this new world he coined the phrase “the desert of the real.” Again, I fall into tangental thought.

I needed to find a way to invite, seduce, capture my students. I tried using myself as a conduit.

I pride myself on the fact that I am an immigrant, a former “at risk” student, that my tattoos all have mythological meaning and thought behind them, that I am a high-school drop out with credentials to my name, a top tier education, a masters degree, etc... I felt like these could help me bridge for my students the platforms of reality-setting discourse and humanistic thought. I had, and still do, believed that real “thinking” is indispensable in being human, in being free, and in the ability to have fun and play with the world.

Again, my students would, at times, meet me in the middle space I wanted to create, though rarely did this space become living for them, instead they lay their heads to the sound of another’s palpitation and breath, and then moved on. Maybe I planted a seed, I like to think. But then, maybe, they were bringing me somewhere as well.

They could not recklessly follow me, or I them. It was an issue of pragmatic bonds. For a moment, my class, or an individual student I was reading with would delve into the power of words with me and the ending of Andrei Platonov’s “Potudon River”  would finally break through the events of the page: “Not every grief can be comforted; there is a grief that ends only after the heart has been worn away in long oblivion, or in distraction amidst life’s everyday concerns.” And my students would draw new understanding of the passage, enter it through a word or phrase that could unlock that middle space between their worlds and the world of literature, philosophy, metaphor. “Grief,” “long oblivion,” life’s everyday concerns,” all the sudden my students would give these new meaning, now only slightly guided by the story and letting their lives find a grip to the reigns. They would find new connections, and again they would return to the “real” world.

More and more I struggled to make thinking relevant. “Will this help me get a better job?” I was asked.

employ

Thinking about it I had to encounter my own struggles with this question. I know the answers. I know the programed liberal arts answer, and the “real” answer. I know that the liberal arts answer exposes the “real” as something at best lacking, at its worst empty. I also know that the real, is real; it happens in real time, removed from the concerns of literature, poetry, and philosophy which concern themselves with the work of mans eternity.

“Unlikely,” I would answer. For gods sake, though I was teaching all these things I cared so deeply about, I also worked nights as a bartender to satisfy the demands of the real. I had to produce something consumable and all of my learning and thoughts on thinking are not that.

Here I acknowledge that this answer is not entirely true. We can find jobs which call for liberal arts skills, but these are few and far between and rarely afford a comfortable standard of living. We may also posit the argument that liberal arts skills will contribute to ones ability to perform better and have a greater understanding of ones job, but this argument does not lend itself to substantial evidence, no matter how much I may actually believe it. This was the litmus test of my “thinking,” and it only survives in embracing the privacies of my world, that I chose my private world despite and above the “real.”

“Unlikely.” And where does that leave us?

Ultimately, all I have as a conscious being is the ability to tell stories, to choose and create my narrative from the scattered world I am provided. Ultimately, after deconstructing both the “real” and the “lofty” I could only encourage my students to choose their own themes. To the question of “what is water?” I could only answer, “the desert.”

Oddly enough, and as “unlikely” as it may seem, when I answered with honesty, to them as well as myself, they followed. -- we could talk.

-Nikita Nelin

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
15Feb/130

Dworkin’s Law & Justice

Ronald Dworkin died yesterday, Thursday. He was 81.

For much of my early career as someone engaged in the question of justice, Ronald Dworkin was one of my imaginary antagonists. Reading Dworkin was eternally frustrating. I was consumed with the inevitable temptation to take on Dworkin’s unwavering apologies for legal power. Dworkin was the great defender of the morality of the state, an idea that I had a hard time accepting. He was an advocate for legitimacy of legal rule, which often seemed ungrounded and illegitimate. Above all, his magnum opus, Law's Empire, is a celebration of the imperial grandeur of law, when law often seemed to my youthful and often angry eye to be rather the embodiment of power, interest, and money.

For Dworkin, ‘we’—lawyers, judges, and philosophers of Law’s Empire—are engaged in the utopian project of purifying law. And law, in turn, purifies us. In being “subjects of law’s empire, liegemen to its methods and ideals,” we bridle our action and reasoning with the constraints of legal thinking. What law requires, above all, is that our actions be made consistent with the foundational moral principles embodied in and by the community. Interpreted correctly—that is, observing the integrity of the moral world—law leads to decisions that enrich a “narrative story” of who we are. It is a story that, for Dworkin, makes our practices and institutions “the best they can be.”

Law in Dworkin’s writing embodies a “flourishing legal system” and carries with itself the possibility of securing the utopian and political ideals of fairness, justice, and procedural due process.  Lawyers, judges, and especially legal philosophers, are the people responsible for dreaming utopian dreams—dreams “already latent in the present law”—and working to bring about those dreams through law and the legal system.  Law, therefore, cannot simply be conventional and self-referential; it must hold within it the promise for progressive societal change. Left, utopian politics, Dworkin states, is law.  Or, in other words, law is the center of all political and ethical progress in modern civilized states.

It is not hard to point out inconsistencies and tensions in Dworkin’s philo-legalism. Dworkin’s many critics reveled in pointing to law’s promises of equality broken and its ideal of justice contradicted. The law does not always act for good. But that means that those who would defend law’s empire have a choice. They can defend the law pragmatically and politically—arguing that law is simply a tool in the larger political struggle for justice. Or they can seek to weave the entirety of the law—good and bad—into an overarching moral universe—imagining law as an ideal that can and should in its nature propel us fitfully toward a more just world. Dworkin took the latter approach. The more I saw the impossibility of his project, the greater became my respect for the nobility and grandeur of his effort.

Much of Dworkin’s academic work is full of abstract theory. Perhaps his most enduring contribution, however, is a single metaphor. Law, Dworkin writes, is like a chain novel. And judges, he argues, are “authors as well as critics” who participate in the collaborative writing of the novel that is the law. The chain novel—in which “a group of novelists writes seriatim”—unfolds chapter by chapter, each written by a different author.  Each author is required both to fit her interpretation to what has come before—i.e. to make an interpretive judgment about the text under the assumption that it was written by a single author—and to judge which of the possible interpretations makes the work in progress the best it can be.  The judgment involves a substantive aesthetic choice; Dworkin insists that this choice is not arbitrary. It is constrained by the structure, plot, and style of the text and authors that have come before.

Dworkin’s claim is that in interpreting and authoring the chain novel, each successive author is not limited to the dichotomous choice between finding the meaning in the text and inventing the meaning of the text. Instead, “each novelist aims to make a single novel.” To do so is not simple and will involve a multifaceted engagement with the text and the principles of what has come before. The author must “find layers and currents of meaning rather than a single, exhaustive theme.” And yet, he “cannot adopt any interpretation, however complex.” Each new interpretation and creation must make the entirety of the chain novel fit together in the best way possible.

Similarly, each judge who decides a case must judge with what Dworkin calls integrity. This means that every judge must find in what has come before the “principle” that “is instinct in law.” When a judge does this, “he reports not a simple-minded claim about the motives of past statesmen, a claim a wise cynic can easily refute, but an interpretive proposal: that the principle both fits and justifies some complex part of legal practice, that it provides an attractive way to see, in the structure of that practice, the consistency of principle integrity requires.” Interpretive practice requires an author to distinguish between continuing the novel and beginning it anew.  Only judgments that continue the law’s story are judgments with integrity.

Dworkin’s analogy of law to a chain novel can be read, sympathetically, as saying: look, we have this community with these values and within it neutral judgments based on laws are impossible.  If we want law, we better figure out a way to make those judgments possible or we are back to justifying law as the rule of those with power.  Law as integrity is such a way.  You external skeptics can go around saying our community is contingent and constructed but sooner or later you are going to have to choose between nihilsim and ethical engagement.

What Dworkin yearned for was a theory of interpretation that could assimilate the entirety of the past into a common and clear narrative of the present. His model judge, Hercules, was the judge whose power of interpretation was so fecund as to master the mass of judgments, facts, and decisions into a single, best, and just narrative.

That such a herculean task is not possible—and that defending such a stance could serve as a smoke screen for the interests and power behind the law—was something Dworkin refused to concede.

In the last decade Dworkin turned from abstract legal philosophy to popular writing, which often appeared in the New York Review of Books. His writing about current issues and cases was clear, moral, and passionate—if also quite predictable. Somehow, Dworkin always found that judging with integrity required decisions in accord with a fundamentally mainstream-left-of-center point of view.

Whatever his limits, Dworkin stood for the undying idea that law—whatever its shortcomings—should aspire to do justice. For this reason alone, if nothing else, we should celebrate him.

The best obituaries so far are found in The Guardian and The New York Times. But better yet, open up your old volume of Law’s Empire. And if you don’t have it handy, here is a version you can navigate on the web.

-RB

 

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and 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

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.