The biggest line in President Obama’s State of the Union message was that he would not accept the US coming in second to China in economic innovation. Vice President Biden echoed the refrain in an interview, saying he was sick of hearing that the US was inevitably in decline, and people already writing us off.
Obama should listen to his Vice President, and recast the national debate. There are many reasons why Obama could embrace patriotism and one-up the Republicans. First, it’s an old adage in politics that you turn a weakness into an advantage. With all the talk about the birthers and Obama being too “internationalist,” a turn towards overt patriotism would dampen and perhaps even drown out that talk. Moreover, Obama need not worry about sounding like a Bush or Palin. He can talk up the US and not sound like a mindless nationalist, even foreigners would understand. And there is gold in that strategy.
The reason the public elected Obama, and now feel less certain about him, is not ideological. Most Americans don’t buy into the progressive agenda or the tea party movement. Instead, they are worried about the state of the nation, and how the next generation is going to deal with unprecedented problems. They see ballooning deficits, failed war efforts, a consumption oriented shallow culture, and wonder “what went wrong — how did we end up here?” Republican or Democrat, there is a real fear that we’re losing our edge, and have perhaps already lost our way. After the burst bubbles of the last decade, there is a gnawing sense of unease about tomorrow.
That is Obama’s entry point – patriotism, not ideology. Here, Mr. President, is some text you can borrow as you see fit, a “patriotism” speech I believe you should deliver:
“Fellow Americans, a new century brings us new challenges. Our economy is riddled with record debt, both public and private, while in recent years we’ve been consuming far more than we produced. Bubble economies created an illusion of easy money, and it became easy to believe we could have ‘something for nothing.’ The politicians cut taxes, yet approved more spending. We hurled ourselves into wars believing victory would be inevitable and quick, only to find it fleeting and hard to define. And now China’s economy is on the rise, we’ve fallen behind in green technology, and much of the world looks at the US as a power in decline. The 20th Century, they say, belonged to the United States. The 21st will belong to Asia, or some other set of powers.
“I do not accept that. I believe we have the will, the spirit of initiative and innovation, and the national character to show the naysayers that America is not about to fade in the sunset, and we are going to make the 21st century our best yet. It is time for us to rise to the challenge, stop playing political games, and actively do something to fix what’s wrong, and put ourselves on the right path forward.
“I have challenged the Republicans to work with me on this, because they face a choice: patriotism, or ideology. We Democrats face that choice as well. Patriotism means that we’re in this together, as Americans, and we need to work together to solve the severe problems facing the country. That’s how we’ve handled crises in the past. Ideology is the narrow claim that there is only one “right” way to govern, and that’s according to how one particular person or party defines it. Ideologies, however, always fail. They oversimplify, constrain creative thought, and yield ivory tower solutions to real world problems. When the two parties argue about ideology, they do the public a great disservice. Rather than working as Americans to solve problems, we become partisans shilling different world views, so caught up in our own narratives that we forget the country and its people. That has happened far too often in recent years. It must stop now if we are to truly move forward as a nation.
“We need to embrace optimism, recognizing that Americans respond best when things look bleak. So to those who say that our economy has nowhere to go but down, that the dollar will somehow lose its value, that our children will lack jobs or health care, that we will be unable to support the boomers as they retire, or that the future is certain to have energy shortages and environmental crises , we need to say, we’re ready. We’ve seen it all before. Slavery. Depression. Major world war. Fear of nuclear holocaust. We’ve faced energy crises, we’ve had a President resign in disgrace, we’ve had riots in our cities, and we’ve had civil war. At those times we pull together and come out stronger. We will do it again, and I will lay out a plan of action on how to do so, inviting the Republicans to join. The full plan will unveiled soon, with considerable room for compromise and debate, but the core components are: 1) Get Americans back to work by investing our infrastructure and capacity to create high technology jobs; 2) Balance our budget through rethinking all spending, and embracing a cost-saving health care reform act; 3) Reassert our role in world affairs by focusing on principle over power, and on cooperation over unilateralism; and 4) deal effectively with the problems caused by globalization, such as terrorism, oil crises, and international tensions. In all of these there is a key method: get rid of fear and embrace a confident ‘we can do this’ attitude. We need not fear economic problems, fear terrorism, or fear climate change. We can solve problems and move forward, with confidence.
“Now, some may say this call sounds arrogant. In a world of 200 countries, why should the US demand to be leading, why not give China or India its turn? I’d answer that in two ways. First, unleashing our potential and doing all we can to improve our future does not require tearing anyone down. Our main competition is with our ideals and aspirations, to achieve that which we set out to achieve for ourselves. Second, we truly believe that freedom and democracy are effective, and as quaint as it might sound, the United States can still be that shining city on a hill, an example of what good, honest, hard working people can do if they respect each other’s individual rights, limit the role of government, work together to solve problems, and put belief in the core values of the country ahead of partisanship and ideology.
“So let’s put aside the crass materialism of recent years, the emphasis on what we have over who we are, the idea that consumption is the core meaning for life in America. To solve our problems we don’t need to go out and shop, we need to go and work to fix what’s wrong and build a future grander than what we right now can imagine. We’re up to that task, if we can work together as Americans first, compromising and putting problem solving ahead of sloganeering. Thank you, and God bless America.”