Alex Massie

The Age of Obama

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WASHINGTON - FEBRUARY 24: U.S. President Barack Obama addresses a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress February 24, 2009 at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

And so it begins. The contrast between Barack Obama last night and George W Bush was striking. Not merely in terms of the content of their speeches, but in their demeanour: whereas Bush seemed a shrunken figure in his final years, dwarfed by the enormity of the challenges of the Presidency and by the scale of his own blunders, Obama, armed with the confidence of victory and unburdened by the oppressive turn of events, seemed to fit his surroundings more comfortably than his predecessor ever managed - save for those first few months after 9/11.

Remember how Bush told the world that, having secured re-election, he knew he had political capital and he sure as hell wasn't going to waste it? Bush was right to think that political capital depreciates just like any other banking stock these days even if, in the end, his second term would prove a disappointment and, in many ways, a squandered opportunity. Obama, whatever one may think of his policy agenda, is determined not to make the same mistake.

Hence this ambitious, liberal speech. It was a speech that would have been too bold for Clinton and too grand for Carter. Obama is the heir to LBJ American liberals have been waiting for. Anyone who feared that the present economic turmoil would be used to justify any number of government initiatives - in the name of Not Doing Nothing - had those suspicions confirmed last night. The era of Big Government (by American standards) is back.

But it's back with a poise and a coolness and a demeanour that, allied with the present uncertainty, make it a much more palatable proposition than at any time since the Great Society itself. I'm going to bet that the immediate and even medium-term reaction to this non-State of the Union, State of the Union adress, is overwhelmingly positive. For that conservatives may thank the ineptitude of George W Bush's administration.

The details on energy policy, on education and, of course, on healthcare were left for another time. Suffice it to say that they will be expensive and that, in education at least, more government intervention is unlikely to be the answer. In a line that will have enraged many of my libertarian friends, Kennedy received a nod too: apparently if you drop out of high school "it's not just quitting on yourself. It's quitting on your country."

So Obama promised the “bold action and big ideas" that will help the United States rebuild its infrastructure and renew its sense of purpose, ambition and confidence. If you're tempted to mutter something along the lines of heaven help us all I quite understand...

After all, we've barely begun and already, as Noam Scheiber says, the real news in Obama's speech is found here: ""Still, this plan will require significant resources from the federal government – and yes, probably more than we’ve already set aside." No wonder the Bush tax cuts are not going to be extended. (Though, yes, much of the middle-class will receive a tax cut instead). 

Obama has never pretended to be anything other than what he is: a pretty orthodox liberal in, by the standards of national politics, unorthodox clothing. But look at how he frames an issue: "Nearly a century after Teddy Roosevelt first called for reform, the cost of our health care has weighed down our economy and the conscience of our nation long enough." The reference to Roosevelt is clever: if TR wasn't exactly a conservative, he remains a Republican hero. So referring to him gives a patina of bipartisan comity to what is in reality a rallying call to the Democratic mainstream. Secondly, TR was President a long, long time ago and yet healthcare still needs to be fixed. This gives a modicum of extra urgency and energy to Obama's promises. Thirdly, talking about the economic impact of the current system is a way of appealling to the economic self-interest of those who already have high-quality coverage. It's not just altruism or hand-outs we're talking about here, folks! But of course the current system offends our "conscience" so it is a mater of morals and a kind of referendum on what country we want to be and the extent to which we can live up to our ideals. There you have it: in one sentence Obama manages to include, one way or another, just about everyone (apart from the libertarians).

There's no policy detail here, of course, merely an imperative to get on with the job. Politically this is sensibe: the details of health-care are tortuous and liable to be misunderstood even by people paid to understand them. Much better to build a degree of momentum behind the Idea of Reform rather than proceed with reform and then have a kind of public referendum upon the messy details and compromises that the system inevitably produces.

And that momentum exists. For better or for worse, this is Obama's time now. I think he senses that he can be Reagan's mirror-image: a President who rolls up the political map and draws a new one, redefining an era in his own image. It's early days yet, but that's the level of ambition he's working at. And right now it seems as though the lights of Republicanism are going out and it may be some time yet before we see them again.

Full text of Obama's speech here. Ambinder and Sullivan have good reaction round-ups.

UPDATE: Ross Douthat chimes in and, happily, seems to agree with me. Or I agree with him. Anyway:

Obama was fantastic - worlds better than his inaugural. He laid out the most ambitious and expensive domestic agenda of any Democratic President since LBJ, and did it so smoothly that you'd think he was just selling an incremental center-left pragmatism. I think that he has an acute sense - more acute than most people in Washington, probably - of just how much running room is open in front of him at the moment, and he intends to make the absolute most of it.

UPDATE 2: Dan Drezner also heard a Democratic Reagan. For better and, yup, for worse.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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