The Counter Narrative of Barack Obama: “The Promise of America”

(10 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

As someone who at times was critical of Barack Obama during the primaries, I was very impressed with Barack Obama’s speech last night, with his thinking as much as his delivery.  

Obama provided a counter narrative of America, a narrative that stands in contradistinction to that of Reagan selfishness.  It’s a truly progressive narrative of America in which the history of America is seen as increasing expansions of democracy.  He drew perhaps on his understanding expressed in his Philadelphia “race” speech of “a more perfect union” in articulating this Promise.    

It was summed up in this line:

That promise is our greatest inheritance. It’s a promise I make to my daughters when I tuck them in at night, and a promise that you make to yours – a promise that has led immigrants to cross oceans and pioneers to travel west; a promise that led workers to picket lines, and women to reach for the ballot.

It’s an America that is a community and which includes, rather than excludes.  Workers, women, men, blacks, whites, hispanics, asians.  It is a promise based on an expansion of democracy and fairness.

More, after the fold.  

It began here, although the roots of the cult of selfishness go back farther.  The ideology was borrowed from the Robber Barons of the 19th century and their apologists.  

In his first inaugural address, Reagan proclaimed that “Government is not the solution; it is the problem.”  

Why was it the problem?

Well, let’s go back to the 1960s:

Because it is right, because it is wise, and because, for the first time in our history, it is possible to conquer poverty, I submit, for the consideration of the Congress and the country, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964.

The Act does not merely expand old programs or improve what is already being done.

It charts a new course.

It strikes at the causes, not just the consequences of poverty.

It can be a milestone in our one-hundred eighty year search for a better life for our people.

Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty

With the Civil Rights movement, “white backlash,” social upheavel, and the war in Vietnam, Nixon was elected in 1968, but Nixon was “moderately conservative” compared to what Reagan would be.

If Government acts in favor of people, and if unions are strong, wealth does not completely dominate. That’s the problem Reagan sought to solve, a problem felt only by the wealthy.  He wanted to remove all obstacles to accumulation of wealth by the investment class and their highly paid CEOs.  To create the great class stratification, government had to be demonized, along with unions.  All countervailing powers to great wealth must be weakened.  Democracy, itself, must become a sham.

But you can’t tell people that.  It has to be hidden.  

Reagan would start to overturn the core New Deal philosphy of “we’re all in it together” by ridiculing community and government, and promoting “enlightened selfishness” and simplistic views of the philosphy of Adam Smith.  In short, “greed is good” even for those who do not get the immediate benefits of that greed.  It’s a great philosophy for those that already have, but not so good for those who are exploited.

By cutting taxes on upper-income families, eliminating important corporate regulations, promoting subsidies to big business, dramatically increasing military spending, and vastly expanding the national debt, Reagan proved to be a “Robin Hood in Reverse“-redistributing income from the working class majority to the capitalist elite. During the Reagan years, the old Robber Baron notion that “greed is good” was revived as an integral component of the American dream.


By the end of the 1980s, incomes of the owning class and the upper middle class had increased almost 30 percent. When Reagan left office, economic inequality in the U.S. had become greater than in any other advanced capitalist country.

The Way Reagan Really Was

The philosophy of Reagan and Bush II are quite similar.  I’ve got mine, Jack.  Screw you!  Oh, they dress it up in fine rhetorical clothes sometimes, but its core is protecting the wealthy by screwing the middle class and the poor.    

“greed is good” was revived as an integral component of the American dream.

It can only succeed when people are divided on the basis of identities other than economic self interest, for “greed is good” favors the Top 10%, and harms the vast majority.  Race was used.  The “poor” were demonized, conflated with African Americans, and race was the hidden game.  Reagan spoke of “Welfare Moms.”  The middle class was split from poor people, many of whom were “working poor,” and told to identify with the rich.  And many did.  Many thought they could be millionaires.  But it does not work that way.  

Obama recognizes this same philosphy in John McCain: The Tough Luck Society.

For over two decades, he’s subscribed to that old, discredited Republican philosophy – give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else.

In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society, but what it really means is – you’re on your own.

Out of work? Tough luck.

No health care?  The market will fix it.

Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps – even if you don’t have boots. You’re on your own.

Barack Obama

“You’re on your own” is the flip side of “greed is good.”

It’s one story of America.  It’s the ideology of the robber barons, of a market system with no regulation, of capitalism run wild. It creates wealth, for a time, until the crashes or Panics.  See, e.g., 1873, 1893, 1907, 1929, and I’m sure I missed some. But it’s not the only story of America.

In many important ways, though, the Gilded Age continued right through to the New Deal. As far as we can tell, income remained about as unequally distributed as it had been the late 19th century – or as it is today. Public policy did little to limit extremes of wealth and poverty, mainly because the political dominance of the elite remained intact; the politics of the era, in which working Americans were divided by racial, religious, and cultural issues, have recognizable parallels with modern politics.

The Great Compression: The middle-class society I grew up in didn’t evolve gradually or automatically. It was created, in a remarkably short period of time, by FDR and the New Deal. As the chart shows, income inequality declined drastically from the late 1930s to the mid 1940s, with the rich losing ground while working Americans saw unprecedented gains. Economic historians call what happened the Great Compression, and it’s a seminal episode in American history.

The Conscience of a Liberal

FDR changed that narrative of America:

For out of this modern civilization economic royalists carved new dynasties. New kingdoms were built upon concentration of control over material things. Through new uses of corporations, banks and securities, new machinery of industry and agriculture, of labor and capital – all undreamed of by the Fathers – the whole structure of modern life was impressed into this royal service.


For too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor – other people’s lives. For too many of us life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness.

Against economic tyranny such as this, the American citizen could appeal only to the organized power of government. The collapse of 1929 showed up the despotism for what it was. The election of 1932 was the people’s mandate to end it. Under that mandate it is being ended.


Today we stand committed to the proposition that freedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place.

Franklin D. Rooselvelt, 1936 DNC Nomination Acceptance Speech

Reagan began to change it back to the 1920s, or even the 19th century with his ideology of greed, and Bush’s “Tough Luck” society has moved it even further.  

Barack Obama understands and offers a new, different story of America, the Promise of America:

We measure the strength of our economy not by the number of billionaires we have or the profits of the Fortune 500, but by whether someone with a good idea can take a risk and start a new business, or whether the waitress who lives on tips can take a day off to look after a sick kid without losing her job – an economy that honors the dignity of work.

Barack Obama

And Obama shows how and why we need government to do what indiviuals cannot do on their own:

Ours is a promise that says government cannot solve all our problems, but what it should do is that which we cannot do for ourselves – protect us from harm and provide every child a decent education; keep our water clean and our toys safe; invest in new schools and new roads and new science and technology.

Our government should work for us, not against us. It should help us, not hurt us. It should ensure opportunity not just for those with the most money and influence, but for every American who’s willing to work.

That’s the promise of America – the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation; the fundamental belief that I am my brother’s keeper; I am my sister’s keeper.

Barack Obama

It is that counter narrative that will defeat John McCain and begin to lead this nation out of the Tough Luck Society into the Promise of America.


Skip to comment form

    • TomP on August 29, 2008 at 5:17 pm

    The Promise of America and expanding democracy.

  1. we are seeing the beginnings of a progressive coalition being formed. This speech was very populist in content also very Democratic in the best sense of the word. As you know I was not an Obama fan but a Edwards supporter, my conversion came in a little known but amazing speech I watched on cspan during the primary. Obama spoke before some party function and he let it rip, much as he did last night.

    On cruising my email today I see praise and support from all factions of the Democratic party, from Sirota to the more mainstream Democrats who clog my mail with political messages. Coalitions are so essential towards any progress. The main element he brings is the people, the belief that they can and should take back their place in the process and government. I also feel he is doing a lot to reeducate us about what being a citizen means. He also showed his fierce side , cool under fire.

    FDR, had to convince a frightened people and sell the New Deal. People fear change and fear the truth which is that they themselves are the only ones who can bring it to the government. It’s good to have a candidate that tells me I can do it.    

    • robodd on August 30, 2008 at 5:47 am

    I liked the speech too.

    There were troubling little details though bankruptcy, nuclear power, oil drilling), that I’ll hopefully diary in the near future.

    • dkmich on August 30, 2008 at 1:04 pm

    Because it let Ronald Reagan in the freaking door of the WH.  Reagan single handedly opened the door to the destruction of everything of value that was accomplished before him.  That grinning SOB, well, you get the point.

    The real problem with government is that there isn’t any.  We have marathon campaigns from election day to election day.  Nobody works for the people, they work to position themselves for re-election from the time they are elected until they are actually defeated.   This same system is what gives money such a big hold over them.  We need campaign reform desperately:  shortened time frame, free air time, and public financing.  That would put their asses back to work on our business instead of theirs.  

  2. I’ll be linking to this in the future.

  3. As buhdy says, “…brilliant!”  I will read this many times over.  Feels like I’ve just taken a course in American Poli-Sci.  Thanks Tom.


    Note how “the left” still endorses fully the perpetual global war of terror even after the PNAC website has gone down.

Comments have been disabled.