If you could sum up President Obama’s approach to political economy in a phrase, you could do worse than Herbert Croly’s “democratic Hamiltonianism”: that is, the energetic executive branch that Hamilton envisioned, but with Hamilton’s predilection for monarchy and aristocracy tempered by pluralism and tolerance. Croly’s The Promise of American Life argued that Hamilton “realized that genuine liberty was not merely a matter of a constitutional declaration of rights. It could be protected only by an energetic and clear-sighted central government, and it could be fertilized only by the efficient national organization of American activities.”
You could hear echoes of Croly in Obama’s line that “preserving our freedoms ultimately requires collective action,” as well as in his assertion that while the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness “may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing.” I wondered, there in Blue Section 11, as I passed a bag of goldfish to my eight-year-old, whether Obama’s concept of non-self-execution suggests a belief that rights are natural, but must sometimes be pried from privilege and patterns of injustice; or, alternatively, something more along the lines of what John Dewey believed—that coercion is natural and freedom is artifice. As Louis Menand put it in his volume on pragmatism, The Metaphysical Club: “Individual freedoms are manufactured to achieve group ends.”
Having chewed on that for a couple days, I’m opting for the less startling interpretation: Obama insists, with Croly, that we need to employ Hamiltonian means to accomplish Jeffersonian [read: individualist] ends.
So here’s my next question: why the drama? Why the palaver about not having to “settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time”? If Obama really wanted to spike the ball in the endzone of economic libertarianism, he should have said that the argument about the role of government the role is settled, and that his side won. Jefferson’s principle of non-interference, of separation of state and economy, resides in the dustbin of American history. The process of erosion was gradual; it began in the late-19th century, experienced a couple of evolutionary leaps during the world wars and the Great Depression, and has been ratified by every post-war Republican administration (Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush, Bush). Republicans talk like Jeffersonians, but there is, now, not a single credible threat of rolling back the welfare state and its administrative apparatus. What we’re having, instead, is a debate about the timing and scale of its reform and modernization.
Obama’s address attempted to walk the line of magnanimity and confrontationalism. He allowed that we’ll never “agree on every contour of life,” and yet all but accused his Republican opponents of turning their back on the sick and vulnerable, of being in the grip of an “absolutism” they do not in fact adhere to. After hearing, and later reading, the speech, it occurred to me that Obama managed the two-fer of overdramatizing ideological conflict and being needlessly personally provocative. He tried half-heartedly to say, “My Republican friends are well-intentioned; they want the same things I do,” but ended up implying that they’re cruel obscurantists.
The truth is, the impasse in Washington is not truly ideological; it’s actuarial. Democratic Hamiltonianism is, for practical purposes, our dominant creed. Obama is having food fights with a majority of the Republican caucus over how to keep the books.
That doesn’t quite pack the same rhetorical punch, though, does it?
If Obama’s Second Inaugural is an indication of how he will govern for the next four years, it seems to me his plan is to force Republicans, at every juncture, to reify their Jeffersonian rhetoric into painful budgetary line items.
To heighten the contradictions, if you will.