Barack Obama’s skillful speech in St. Paul last night closely followed the rich text that had been released before he delivered it. Thematically, it recalled JFK’s inaugural address, invoking generational change and offering up Obama as its bearer. Whereas JFK’s speech framed generational change defending and advancing liberty around the world, Obama’s holds out generational change to support the causes of retreat abroad and unlimited government at home. The challenges outlined by Obama are to be addressed by government programs in which citizens become clients of the welfare state, as early in life as possible.
The speech had both offensive and defensive components. Going on offense, Obama tied McCain to Bush. Going on defense, Obama set the ground rules of the campaign. He sought to proscribe from discussion the issues raised by Obama’s radical associations. Are Obama’s spiritual mentors and friends demonstrably guilty of hating America? Do their frankly stated views reflect on Obama’s own unstated views? According to Obama, the subject is illegitimate. Raising the subject “uses religion as a wedge, and patriotism as a bludgeon.” It sounds almost unconstitutional, if not a violation of human rights.
Obama turned Senator McCain’s suggestion that Obama visit Iraq to view current progress against McCain, suggesting that McCain needs a tour of the United States. Obama provided his own tour, calling up a parade of victims. It is a tour that reveals Senator McCain’s unconsciousness of the victimization of the American people:
Maybe if he went to Iowa and met the student who works the night shift after a full day of class and still can’t pay the medical bills for a sister who’s ill, he’d understand that she can’t afford four more years of a health care plan that only takes care of the healthy and wealthy. She needs us to pass a health care plan that guarantees insurance to every American who wants it and brings down premiums for every family who needs it. That’s the change we need.
Maybe if he went to Pennsylvania and met the man who lost his job but can’t even afford the gas to drive around and look for a new one, he’d understand that we can’t afford four more years of our addiction to oil from dictators. That man needs us to pass an energy policy that works with automakers to raise fuel standards, and makes corporations pay for their pollution, and oil companies invest their record profits in a clean energy future — an energy policy that will create millions of new jobs that pay well and can’t be outsourced. That’s the change we need.
“The change we need” requires augmenting the powers of government and expanding the embrace of the welfare state. No principle limits the powers of government. No cost is registered against which to measure putative benefits. Resistance can only betoken mean-spiritedness.
Obama’s recitation of ills and prescriptions is of interest, but not the most interesting element of the speech. In one passage Obama opened another window onto the adolescent grandiosity we last saw on display in the April 29 press conference where Obama repudiated Reverend Wright for showing his disrespect of Obama. In the press conference Obama explained:
I don’t think that [Wright] showed much concern for me. I don’t — more importantly, I don’t think he showed much concern for what we are trying to do in this campaign and what we’re trying to do for the American people and with the American people.
[A]t a certain point, if what somebody says contradicts what you believe so fundamentally, and then he questions whether or not you believe it in front of the National Press Club, then that’s enough. That’s — that’s a show of disrespect to me. It’s a — it is also, I think, an insult to what we’ve been trying to do in this campaign.
Last night Obama found McCain guilty of the same offense as Wright:
In just a few short months, the Republican Party will arrive in St. Paul with a very different agenda. They will come here to nominate John McCain, a man who has served this country heroically. I honor that service, and I respect his many accomplishments, even if he chooses to deny mine.
Senator McCain’s “many accomplishments” of course include military service and martial sacrifice beyond the understanding of most of us. If it is possible to give something beyond the last full measure of devotion, McCain gave it on behalf of the United States over five-and-a-half years in North Vietnamese hellholes. I’m not aware of Senator McCain ever declining to acknowledge Obama’s “many accomplishments,” but he might be well served by expressly acknowledging them in his stump speech:
Senator Obama, I honor your work in the private sector for a year or two after you graduated from college, and I honor your work for three years as a community organizer in Chicago. I understand that as a community organizer you pressured city authorities to remove asbestos from the Altgeld Gardens apartments in 1986 with at least partial success.
When the on-site manager of the apartments didn’t take action, you nudged the residents into confronting city housing officials in two angry public meetings downtown. These generated “a victory of sorts,” you said later, as workers soon began sealing the asbestos in the buildings, even if the project gradually ran out of steam and money and even if some tenants still have asbestos in their homes, according to current resident Linda Randle, who worked with you in the ’86 anti-asbestos campaign.
When you chose to quit organizing the South Side of Chicago after three years, your good deeds did not stop. You rendered valiant service by attending Harvard Law School and winning your first election as the president of the Harvard Law Review.
Your service to the Harvard Law Review did not bring an end to your remarkable benefactions. You returned to Chicago, where you won election to the Illinois state legislature before the triumph that brought you to the Senate for the past three-and-a-half years. We all know your accomplishments in the Senate.
And last, but far from least, I honor your authorship of Dreams From My Father, a memoir that has spent many weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. You, sir, have served our country with uncommon distinction.
How long, I wonder, before Obama would find the acknowledgement of his many accomplishments beyond the pale of civilized discourse? (Hat tip: Kenneth T. Walsh’s “On the streets of Chicago, a candidate comes of age.”)
PAUL adds: McCain has his flaws, but I never thought that insufficient travel in the United States was one of them. Aren’t there any hard luck stories in New Hampshire?
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