In an address to the Congress on February 24th, 2009, Barack Obama delivered a stemwinding speech that progressives hailed as a phenomenal victory. The New York Times's Frank Rich argued that it was a "riveting" address, but one that also put Obama at a crossroads, confronting the nascent populist rage embodied in Rick Santelli's now famous rant against "bad behavior" on CNBC. Obama's speech was well received by the public; polls after the speech showed a meaningful pro-Obama bounce. Indeed, even conservative David Brooks praised it as "an excellent speech."
What interests me about the speech is just how conservative it is in content while stylistically is more liberal. It discusses the necessity of governmental intervention to the economy as a temporary intervention in an exceptional circumstance, only needed insofar as it brings us back to a condition of such economic stability the free competitionon an equal plane between economic agents can resume. Obama also locates the responsibility for the economic crisis not just on a greedy Wall Street, but also emphasizes that individual Americans have been behaving in economically irresponsible ways.
Obama also flatly defends American exceptionalism. Economic malaise threatens not human life or dignity but rather the danger is that America's status as "the greatest force of progress and prosperity in human history" might be threatened. What will overcome this threat is the American spirit; government action is conditioned upon this fact. Government only acts until once again American excellence can again take over. Rather than examining the economic malaise as a symptom of a deeper problem (pursuing a perspective by incongruity or inquiring after the "metaphor of the metaphor"). The problem is not with the idea of America; it lies with how those called Americans have misbehaved within the structure itself. The economic collapse provides us with a "time of reckoning" in Obama's words, one where it is time to own up to our irresponsibility for borrowing irresponsibly, consuming too greedily, and refusing the future for gains in the near-term.
Obama thus particularizes the human behaviors of the last few decades that led to the economic issues as fundamentally resolvable through human choice. Recession could be avoided: if only we were better capitalists. No foreclosures but if banks don't let greed cloud their market judgment. It seems that the real issue is not a systemic one with the economic system, as Obama's opponents would have it, but instead adjustments within the system. The agents within the system must behave according to the rules of the system.
So fine, dear reader, you might flag this as a banal observation: Hey lookee! The president is supporting the vision of America that everyone assumes is predominant. All well and good. But we ought to be attentive to the situation, as well, and ponder: Obama's speech is responding to a tidal wave of anger (and as it would turn out, populist anger). How does Obama's speech figure the people?
The short answer is: he doesn't. Or at least, they are nothing more than an assumed mass, whose existence is already guaranteed. Their individual agency need only be liberated from our temporary morass. While government is figured as something that does work for the people, that work is only temporary, necessitated by extenuating circumstances. This is true with one major exception: for Obama, the people don't really know that they need his help. He positions the judgment that there is a crisis at the level of the popular but the solutions are positioned as emanating from the government. His tone is to say: "Look at all these things we (I) are (am) doing for you! Tax cuts! A recovery plan! Functioning loan markets!" However temporary, government is the condition of the possibility of a now-functioning American polity.
In this way, the often rambunctious and fiery Tea Party arguments, structured around a sort of populism that locates liberation in common sense and oppression in vague managerialism, gain ground. Because the judgment of the crisis is located in both the people and the government but the content of the solutions is decided by the government, any time-delay in the resolution of the crisis can be attributed to a failure in the government's solution-side judgment rather than in a misdiagnosis of the problem (a diagnosis shared by government and people). The supplement of the government can then be more easily discarded rhetorically, in favor of a sure-sighted support of what the people want--presumably, more freedom and individual liberation.
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