President Obama gave two big speeches yesterday, one at the National Prayer Breakfast and one at the Energy Department. At the Prayer Breakfast, Obama discussed his commitment to the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. At the Energy Department, he discussed his economic stimulus bill. Both speeches were fine but he needed more prayer at the Energy Department and more economics at the Prayer Breakfast.
We are told the President is a bit of a wonk, he likes to immerse himself in policy detail and reach the solution that seems the smartest. This characteristic comes through in certain interviews and statements and, after eight years of policy by gut-check, it is welcome indeed. But, his job as president is not only to decide among policy options after careful study. It is to place his decisions into a moral narrative that both defines the political debate and inspires sufficient numbers of his fellow Americans to create political support for his decisions. Nowhere is this more important than in the debate about the stimulus bill, but it will remain important as the bill becomes law, the law becomes implemented and the consequences of the law become the central focus of next year’s midterm elections.
The economy is not only the most important political issue; it is the most important moral issue. When the President signed the SCHIP bill on Wednesday, he drew the connection. "In a decent society, there are certain obligations that are not subject to tradeoffs or negotiation – health care for our children is one of those obligations," said the President. Decent. Obligation. These are moral words, not policy words.
Yesterday, there was little mention of the toll the economic downturn is taking on families at the Prayer Breakfast yet for most Americans, providing for their families is the foremost moral obligation of their lives. And the speech was a missed opportunity to give voice to the sense of confidence in Providence that so characterized the speeches of Lincoln that Obama admires.
At the Energy Department, the President contrasted his policies with those of the previous eight years and said the old ways had failed. They had failed economically and, given the result in November, they failed politically. But, they also failed morally in that those economic policies, even when they were working, did nothing to bind the nation together, to encourage economic actors to consider the least of our brethren, to permit families more time together. Finally, the Reagan-Bush economic strategy of letting the rich and powerful have their way with the nation’s economy failed morally because it tethered itself to a stock market focused only on short-term gain and rewarded decisions to slash payrolls, outsource jobs, shave pensions and prevent workers from forming a union. The value of an employee became a negative, a line item on the cost side of the ledger. I have never heard President Obama use the phrase, but it is time to call those policies by their true name: social darwinism.
Alas, none of this was in the speech at the Energy Department. He did not say, as he said in St. Louis in the final weeks of the campaign, "
It comes down to values – in America, do we simply value wealth, or do we value the work that creates it?" Those words echoed FDR and, for that matter, Leo XIII and they resonate still.
The President and the party he leads need to find their moral voice. The few Democrats in the House who did not support the stimulus bill all hailed from conservative districts where they will have a tough time winning re-election. If the stimulus bill had been cast in moral terms from start to finish it might have been easier for them to vote for it and to explain their vote to their constituents. Moral language transcends partisan divides which is why it worked so well in flipping unaffiliated voters from red to blue last November. And no politician in our lifetime has had the rhetorical skill to deliver a moral message with the force that President Obama has. He needs that moral voice now. We need that moral voice now. I hope he finds it.