Amor Mundi 12/20/15

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.

amor_mundi_sign-upHuman Rights vs. Reality

paris vigilMichael Ignatieff in the New York Review of Books writes that the refugee crisis in Europe and the Middle East has proven Hannah Arendt right about the inevitable failure of human rights declarations in the face of political crises. “The Paris attacks make it easy to forget a scandalous fact: 3,329 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe so far this year. Still more are drowning every week. They are drowning in sight of the island of Lesbos in Greece or off the Italian island of Lampedusa. Others are dying trapped inside refrigerator trucks on the roadside in Austria; they are dying inside the Channel Tunnel, trying to reach Great Britain; as the winter darkens, some may die of exposure on the trek up through the Balkans. Later generations will ask how European leaders let this happen. Hannah Arendt, exiled in 1933, stripped of her German citizenship in 1937, later taking flight from Vichy France and finally reaching New York in 1941, also wondered how Europe had betrayed the stateless in her own time. In 1948, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, she observed that it was citizenship that gives human beings the ‘right to have rights.’ As for stateless persons, she concluded, they ought to have rights simply because they are human, but her own experience had taught her a different lesson: ‘If a human being loses his political status, he should, according to the implications of the inborn and inalienable rights of man, come under exactly the situation for which the declarations of such general rights provided. Actually the opposite is the case. It seems that a man who is nothing but a man has lost the very qualities which make it possible for other people to treat him as a fellow-man.’ The passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the Refugee Convention in 1951, and the European Convention on Human Rights in 1953 was supposed to give the stateless the right to have rights. States who signed these documents were not allowed to let stateless people drown in their waters and were not supposed to send them back home if they were likely to be tortured; they were entitled to a hearing to make their claim to stay. Anyone, in the words of the Refugee Convention, who fled a ‘well-founded fear of being persecuted’ had a right to claim refuge in any country that ratified the convention. Thanks to the human rights revolution after 1945, Europe thought it had proven Arendt wrong. Now that we have seen a dead toddler face down, washed up on the gravel of a Turkish beach, Arendt may have been right after all. The Refugee Convention of 1951 has been overwhelmed by the reality of 2015.”

The Roots of the Migration Crisis

migrant crisisWalter Russell Mead in the Wall Street Journal has a different read on the refugee crisis, which he rightly calls “one of the worst humanitarian disasters since the 1940s.” For Mead, the refugee crisis has its roots in the failure of two civilizations: “What we are witnessing today is a crisis of two civilizations: The Middle East and Europe are both facing deep cultural and political problems that they cannot solve. The intersection of their failures and shortcomings has made this crisis much more destructive and dangerous than it needed to be–and carries with it the risk of more instability and more war in a widening spiral. The crisis in the Middle East has to do with much more than the breakdown of order in Syria and Libya. It runs deeper than the poisonous sectarian and ethnic hatreds behind the series of wars stretching from Pakistan to North Africa. At bottom, we are witnessing the consequences of a civilization’s failure either to overcome or to accommodate the forces of modernity. One hundred years after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and 50 years after the French left Algeria, the Middle East has failed to build economies that allow ordinary people to live with dignity, has failed to build modern political institutions and has failed to carve out the place of honor and respect in world affairs that its peoples seek…. In Europe and the West, the crisis is quieter but no less profound. Europe today often doesn’t seem to know where it is going, what Western civilization is for, or even whether or how it can or should be defended. Increasingly, the contemporary version of Enlightenment liberalism sees itself as fundamentally opposed to the religious, political and economic foundations of Western society. Liberal values such as free expression, individual self-determination and a broad array of human rights have become detached in the minds of many from the institutional and civilizational context that shaped them.” While Europe is trying to maintain humanitarian values, the embrace of absolute values is bringing Europe to a breaking point: “Under normal circumstances, the rights-based, legalistic approach can work reasonably well. When refugee flows are slack, the political fallout from accommodating them is manageable. But when the flow of desperate people passes a certain threshold, receiving countries no longer have the will (and, in some cases, the ability) to follow through. Ten thousand refugees is one thing; 10 million is another. Somewhere between those extremes is a breaking point at which the political system will no longer carry out the legal mandate. To pretend that this isn’t true is to invite trouble, and Europe is already much closer to a breaking point than Brussels or Berlin would like to admit.” For Mead, the great mistake that Europe and the West have made is to insist on a noble and idealistic program of human rights while being singularly unwilling to embrace the corollary of such a platform. This includes their willingness to use military force to prevent countries like Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan from failing and thus sending an untenable number of migrants into Europe. A humane refugee policy, Mead argues, can only work if the West takes up its responsibility to help guarantee the security of people against ruthless tyrants and “the brutal fanaticism and nihilistic violence of groups like Islamic State.”

A Public Voice for the World

snowy hac 2Listening to so many electioneering voices talking about how “I would solve the Mid-East crisis,” “how I would handle terrorism in this country,” “how I would solve the immigration problem,” “how I would reverse an economic downturn,” (etc. etc.) one may be startled to hear that in politics it is not the self that matters but the world. In a sense, all great political thinkers and actors have known that, but it was Hannah Arendt who most forcefully articulated it. We live in a world that is more densely populated than ever before and whose bulk has shrunk through the instantaneity of electronic communication. These are the conditions of political dangers of the first order, as we see daily, all over the world. Yet where do we find public voices with world views? Neither among the candidates nor the people. When Arendt writes that “Courage liberates men from their worry about life for the freedom of the world,” she says that the imagination of and preservation of the common world is of greater meaning that our individual lives. And when she continues, “Courage is indispensable because in politics not life but the world is at stake,” she reiterates that all who engage in politics must strive to act in ways that elevate the glory of our common world above ourselves. One reason to keep returning to Arendt’s writing and thinking is because she so forcefully reminds us that the public world is always endangered and in need of political actors with the courage to act and speak in ways that are surprising, captivating, and unnerving. The Hannah Arendt Center is dedicated to bringing Arendt’s bold and provocative style of thinking about important political and ethical questions to a broad audience. You can read about what we do here. Please consider becoming a member and supporting our work.–RB

The Death of Persuasion

political divideJoseph Epstein writing in the Wall Street Journal relays a basic truth of our time: meaningful civic discourse has been replaced by hardened opinion. “In 1952, during the first Eisenhower-Stevenson election campaign, I asked my father for whom he was going to vote, fairly certain of the answer (Adlai Stevenson). He surprised me by saying that before making a decision he was waiting to see which way the columnist Walter Lippmann was going. Lippmann, though he would have much preferred to lunch with Stevenson, went for Eisenhower. He did so because he thought the great war hero had a better chance than Stevenson of closing down Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt. Is there anyone today waiting to see what a newspaper columnist thinks before deciding how to vote? Is there a political columnist in America not already lined up, his or her leanings unknown and unpredictable? Is there anyone in the country, period, not intransigently locked into his or her opinions? What would it take for any of us to make a Lippmann-like move, rising above personal preference and partisanship, to cast a vote for the good of the country instead of against people we loathe? Maybe it doesn’t matter. After all, we have only our national civility to lose.” At a time when candidates from all parties and all affiliations patter on about their poll-tested political truths, I would vote for nearly any candidate who in the midst of a debate stopped, looked at one of his or her colleagues, and said: “You know, you’re right. You’ve convinced me I was wrong.” What I would give for politics to return to being about persuasive speech instead of stale truths.–RB

amor_mundi_sign-upGoing Home

ethiopiaDinaw Mengestu writes of his exile from a country he never knew: “My father, of course, eventually stopped with the stories. He might have done so because we no longer asked him to tell us them, or because we were old enough to read on our own, or because it was the mid-1980s, and Caterpillar, where my father worked, was going through a round of layoffs that would bankrupt my parents’ plans of buying their first home. Or perhaps he stopped because suddenly, everywhere we turned, Ethiopia, or one tragic version of it, was staring back at us. There it was on the evening news, dying of hunger, and there it was in the well-intentioned questions of strangers who must have been baffled to hear my father declare that he was a political exile, one who had fled a civil war, the same one that was helping cause the famine. I became conscious around then of my father’s politics and that growing consciousness meant eschewing childish things. I saw how he read and watched the news with an almost religious devotion. I remember him voting for Reagan as a newly minted US citizen, because Reagan, like my father, hated the communists, both in Russia and the ones who had taken over Ethiopia. I remember staying up past my bedtime to watch the news of the US bombing of Libya. It was a strangely celebratory mood in our apartment–my father applauding the president as he spoke from the Oval Office, and then, later, calling the White House to share his overwhelming, wholehearted support. The Libyans weren’t communists, but Gaddafi was a tyrant, just like Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam. On the scale of things, Tripoli wasn’t that far from Addis Ababa, and now, after that evening, who knew where in Africa America’s bombs might land next. My father was certainly a political man before fleeing Ethiopia in 1978 while on a business trip to Italy. He came from a prominent family, had a good corporate job working with Ethiopian Airlines, and had imagined himself in politics once he was more established. He told me that when he left Ethiopia, he always imagined it wouldn’t be for long; he expected the communist government that had taken over in 1974 to quickly fail, and when it did, he, like thousands of other refugees in exile the world over, would rush back home to save the country. When my mother, sister, and I arrived in Peoria in 1980, he must have already begun to learn to live by a different narrative. We were digging our heels deeper into America, but time and even distance were irrelevant when it came to the politics of home. By the time we moved to the suburbs of Chicago seven years later, I had thoroughly absorbed my father’s secular faith. At nine years old, I considered myself a conservative, a Reagan-loving Republican. I wore sweater vests to school and on Sunday mornings sat through the morning news shows as American foreign policy, which was what my father loved most, was debated. In the evenings, my father and I developed a new bedtime ritual. We traded in the amoral, mischievous monkeys for issues of US News and World Report. I read about foreign and domestic policy over my father’s shoulder, ignoring what I didn’t understand, trying hard to commit to memory what I did.”

On Violence

violenceNatasha Lennard and Brad Evans wonder at the relationship between violence and our smart phones: “It is certainly right to suggest the connections between violence and media communications have been a recurring feature of human relations. We only need to open the first pages of Aeschylus’ ‘Oresteia’ to witness tales of victory in battle and its communicative strategies–on this occasion the medium of communication was the burning beacon. But there are a number of ways in which violence is different today, in terms of its logics intended, forced witnessing and ubiquitous nature…. One of the key arguments I make throughout my work is that violence has now become the defining organizational principle for contemporary societies. It mediates all social relations. It matters less if we are actual victims of violence. It is the possibility that we could face some form of violent encounter, which shapes the logics of power in liberal societies today. Our political imagination as such has become dominated by multiple potential catastrophes that appear on the horizon. The closing of the entire Los Angeles city school system after a reported terrorist threat yesterday is an unsettling reminder of this. From terror to weather and everything in between, insecurity has become the new normal. We see this played out at global and local levels, as the effective blurring between older notions of homeland/battlefields, friends/enemies and peace/war has led to the widespread militarization of many everyday behaviors–especially in communities of color. None of this can be divorced from the age of new media technologies, which quite literally puts a catastrophic world in our hands. Indeed, not only have we become forced witness to many tragic events that seem to be beyond our control (the source of our shared anxieties), accessible smart technologies are now redefining the producer and audience relationships in ways that challenge the dominance of older medias. A notable outcome of this has been the shift toward humanized violence. I am not only talking about the ways in which wars have been aligned with humanitarian principles. If forms of dehumanization hallmarked the previous Century of Violence, in which the victim was often removed from the scene of the crime, groups such as ISIS foreground the human as a disposable category. Whether it is the progressive liberal, the journalist, the aid worker or the homosexual, ISIS put the human qualities of the victims on full broadcast.”

Too Cool

academic critiqueLisa Ruddick wonders at the contemporary state of academic writing: “Is there something unethical in contemporary criticism? This essay is not just for those who identify with the canaries in the mine, but for anyone who browses through current journals and is left with an impression of deadness or meanness. I believe that the progressive fervor of the humanities, while it reenergized inquiry in the 1980s and has since inspired countless valid lines of inquiry, masks a second-order complex that is all about the thrill of destruction. In the name of critique, anything except critique can be invaded or denatured. This is the game of academic cool that flourished in the era of high theory. Yet what began as theory persists as style. Though it is hardly the case that everyone (progressive or otherwise) approves of this mode, it enjoys prestige, a fact that cannot but affect morale in the field as a whole. The reflections that follow focus largely on English, my home discipline and a trendsetter for the other modern language disciplines. These days nothing in English is ‘cool’ in the way that high theory was in the 1980s and 1990s. On the other hand, you could say that what is cool now is, simply, nothing. Decades of antihumanist one-upmanship have left the profession with a fascination for shaking the value out of what seems human, alive, and whole. Some years ago Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick touched on this complex in her well-known essay on paranoid reading, where she identified a strain of ‘hatred’ in criticism. Also salient is a more recent piece in which Bruno Latour has described how scholars slip from ‘critique’ into ‘critical barbarity,’ giving ‘cruel treatment’ to experiences and ideals that non-academics treat as objects of tender concern. Rita Felski’s current work on the state of criticism has reenergized the conversation on the punitive attitudes encouraged by the hermeneutics of suspicion. And Susan Fraiman’s powerful analysis of the ‘cool mal’ intellectual style favored in academia is concerned with many of the same patterns I consider here. I hope to show that the kind of thinking these scholars, among others, have criticized has survived the supposed death of theory. More, it encourages an intellectual sadism that the profession would do well to reflect on. Why has it been hard for this community to shift away from norms that make ruthlessness look like sophistication, even as dissenting voices are periodically raised and new trends keep promising to revitalize the field? The reflections that follow, in proposing some answers, touch on the secret life of groups.” The “critical barbarity” Ruddick describes bears a close resemblance to the joy in destruction that Hannah Arendt describes in the war-time German elite. Both are born from what Arendt calls the “justified disgust” at a decadent public world. And yet when that disgust allows itself to find joy in destruction rather than a will to repair, there is a chance for what Arendt calls the alliance of the elite with the mob. Which is why amongst the criticism of the mob-like elements in politics so many of the elite can barely restrain a smile, proof that they are right in their disdain for our world.–RB

Politics in the Cafeteria

oberlinIn The American Interest, Walter Russell Mead reports on the politics of college cooking: “The horror of ‘cultural appropriation’ has struck Oberlin, where dining hall staff have apparently offended the sensibilities of students by mixing various types of ethnic food. The New York Post reports: ‘Students at an ultra-liberal Ohio college are in an uproar over the fried chicken, sushi and Vietnamese sandwiches served in the school cafeterias, complaining the dishes are “insensitive” and “culturally inappropriate.” Gastronomically correct students at Oberlin College–alma mater of Lena Dunham–are filling the school newspaper with complaints and demanding meetings with campus dining officials and even the college president. General Tso’s chicken was made with steamed chicken instead of fried–which is not authentically Chinese, and simply “weird,” one student bellyached in the Oberlin Review. Others were up in arms over banh mi Vietnamese sandwiches served with coleslaw instead of pickled vegetables, and on ciabatta bread, rather than the traditional French baguette.’ Doing horrible things to foreign dishes is an authentic and time-honored American tradition.”

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

vrg banner headingHAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #16

HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.

For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at

Friday, January 8, 2015, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm

vita activaVita Activa – The Spirit of Hannah Arendt

Roger Berkowitz, Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center, will be participating in the opening of the new film, VITA ACTIVA – THE SPIRIT OF HANNAH ARENDT, Directed by Ada Ushpiz, taking place at the Film Forum in New York City.

About the Film: A brand new documentary about one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. The German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt caused an uproar in the 1960s by coining the subversive concept of the “Banality of Evil” when referring to the trial of Adolph Eichmann, which she covered for the New Yorker magazine. Her private life was no less controversial thanks to her early love affair with the renowned German philosopher and Nazi supporter Martin Heidegger. This thought provoking and spirited documentary, with its abundance of archival materials, offers an intimate portrait of the whole of Arendt’s life, traveling to places where she lived, worked, loved, and was betrayed, as she wrote about the open wounds of modern times. Through her books, which are still widely read and the recent release of Margarethe von Trotta’s biopic Hannah Arendt (also a Zeitgeist Films release) there is renewed interest in Arendt throughout the world, especially among young people who find her insights into the nature of evil, totalitarianism, ideologies, and the perils faced by refugees, more relevant than ever. Watch the Trailer.

Wednesday, April 8, 2016

Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street West of 6th Ave., New York, NY, Time TBA

How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on CampusSAVE THE DATE – 2016 FALL CONFERENCE

On OCTOBER 20-21, 2016 we will host our ninth annual fall conference: “How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on Campus“. We’ll see you there!

Thursday and Friday, October 20 and 21, 2016

Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am – 6:00 pm

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Richard Barrett reflects on Arendt’s understanding of authority and depth in the Quote of the Week. Aristophanes discusses how one can escape the entanglement of a baffling thought in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. Kate Bermingham shares her love of Arendt’s ability to both love and break from political theory tradition in this week’s Library feature. Finally, we encourage everyone to make a year-end contribution to the Hannah Arendt Center.


The Poverty of Ideas

In an essay on the past and future of critical theory, Raymond Geuss offers an observation that has increasing resonance across all fields of inquiry, from politics and economics to philosophy and literature: sometime around 1970, the basic 20th century consensus that democracy and capitalism would provide an eternal increase in both justice and wealth began to unravel. Thomas Piketty makes a similar point in his book Capital in the 21st Century. It is increasingly likely that the post-World War II marriage of rising equality and rising incomes was a bubble of sorts. Whether one mourns the loss of a golden age or celebrates the liberation from childish illusions, the loss of the hopeful liberal idealism of the mid-20th century is a fact still to be reckoned with. Continue reading

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.