It's hard to think of a speech that was more eagerly anticipated and subjected to as much prior commentary as the one Barack Obama will deliver tomorrow night at Invesco Field in Denver. Given the track record of Obama and his speechwriters, chances are that the speech will be eloquently written and skillfully delivered, and as it reaches its climax, hearts will swell, goosebumps will rise, and Democrats will find themselves putting aside their cynicism (at least for a while) and hoping for grand things from the next presidency.
But there's something else worth hoping for in Obama's speech, something that has been glimpsed only occasionally in his presidential campaign: a full-throated defense not just of his candidacy or of the vague ideas of change and progress but of progressivism as an ideology. And while he's at it, he could offer an attack not just on the actual failures of George W. Bush or the potential failures of John McCain but on the failure that is conservatism.
Fat chance, you may be saying. Obama has always avoided direct ideological confrontation in favor of an appeal to bipartisan cooperation and nonideological solutions. But there is a precedent for such a speech -- one made by a rising star of a senator just three years ago.
Before we get to that, we should understand what makes Obama's rhetoric so powerful, particularly for the progressives and younger voters who are his core supporters. (By "younger voters" I don't mean young voters but rather anyone under the age of around 50 -- or about 60 percent of the voting-age population.) What's so compelling about Obama's best speeches is that they make you feel as though you are actually a part of history. Older generations didn't doubt that they were: they or their loved ones fought in wars, they suffered through the Depression, and they generally felt as though the momentous events of their time were things everyone experienced together. The last generation to feel this way -- the baby boomers -- may not all have gone to Vietnam, but those who grew their hair long or listened to a Hendrix album can look back and say they were participants in the country's transformative era. (This may explain why boomers are so relentlessly nostalgic: Their own coming of age, a time we are all likely to look back on as particularly meaningful, came at a tumultuous and weighty moment for the nation.)
But if you were born in the '60s, '70s, or '80s, history probably isn't something you participated in, it's something you watched on television. You watched America's all-volunteer military invade a succession of small countries (Grenada, Panama, Kuwait, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq...) but never worried about you or your brother going to fight, unless it were by choice. The most significant event of the second half of the 20th century -- the breakup of the Soviet Empire -- happened on television, too. When a world-changing event took place on American soil, most of us watched it on the tube. And what did the people who were actually in lower Manhattan on September 11 say? Over and over, they told journalists, "It was like something out of a movie." They could only relate it to their experience as spectators.
Again and again, Obama tells people that they are more than just spectators. When Obama said, after the Iowa caucus, "On this January night -- at this defining moment in history -- you have done what the cynics said we couldn't do," the pronouns were critical. Unlike George W. Bush, who tends to put himself at the center of the heroic stories he tells, Obama is much more likely to talk about "you" and "we." That speech included a repetition of the phrase "This was the moment," culminating with, "Years from now, you'll look back and you'll say that this was the moment -- this was the place -- where America remembered what it means to hope." It's a kind of instant nostalgia, looking forward to looking back, that harks back to Shakespeare's Henry V rousing his troops at Agincourt ("This story shall the good man teach his son. ... And gentlemen in England now a-bed shall think themselves accursed they were not here").
The message is that you are living in historic times, and history depends on you. This is particularly compelling for progressives who have spent years thirsting for a political movement that makes them feel strong. So often they have been derided for being wimpy and passive, standing on the sidelines debating while two-fisted conservatives conquer the world -- or as an unnamed Bush aide famously told Ron Suskind, "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do." But Obama's rhetoric tells progressives that they can be more than spectators, bending the nation's course to their will. It's an enticing idea for people who have gotten used to being bullied by their opponents and let down by impotent leadership.
While it didn't receive nearly the attention given to Obama's 2004 convention keynote or his remarks on race in Philadelphia this March, a speech Obama delivered in June 2005 shows that he can make a powerful ideological argument that doesn't clash with his fundamental message of unity. Less than five months after taking office in the Senate, Obama delivered a commencement address at Knox College in Illinois. The speech stands as one of the strongest affirmations of progressivism in recent history.
At Knox, Obama told the story of American history as an ongoing progressive triumph over conservatism. He related a series of moments in which the forces of the status quo wanted oppression and deprivation to continue, but they were foiled because, in the phrase Obama repeated, "We chose to act, and we rose together" to eliminate slavery, pass labor protections, emerge from the Depression, and fight World War II. Then he moved into the present:
Like so much of the American story, once again, we face a choice. Once again, there are those who believe that there isn't much we can do about this as a nation. That the best idea is to give everyone one big refund on their government -- divvy it up by individual portions, in the form of tax breaks, hand it out, and encourage everyone to use their share to go buy their own health care, their own retirement plan, their own child care, their own education, and so on.
In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society. But in our past there has been another term for it -- Social Darwinism -- every man or woman for him or herself. It's a tempting idea, because it doesn't require much thought or ingenuity. It allows us to say that those whose health care or tuition may rise faster than they can afford -- tough luck. It allows us to say to the Maytag workers who have lost their job -- life isn't fair. It let's us say to the child who was born into poverty -- pull yourself up by your bootstraps. And it is especially tempting because each of us believes we will always be the winner in life's lottery, that we're the one who will be the next Donald Trump, or at least we won't be the chump who Donald Trump says: "You're fired!"
But there is a problem. It won't work. It ignores our history. It ignores the fact that it's been government research and investment that made the railways possible and the internet possible. It's been the creation of a massive middle class, through decent wages and benefits and public schools that allowed us all to prosper. Our economic dependence depended on individual initiative. It depended on a belief in the free market; but it has also depended on our sense of mutual regard for each other, the idea that everybody has a stake in the country, that we're all in it together and everybody's got a shot at opportunity.
As you may have noticed, Obama made this case for progressivism and against conservatism without ever using the word "progressive" or "conservative." It was probably no accident. One might argue that failing to name the philosophies he discusses dilutes the argument, but it is certainly in keeping with Obama's effort to appear post-partisan.
And it is still a powerful argument, one progressives could stand to hear again (and the broader public ought to hear for the first time). If Obama wins in November, he will have the opportunity to do for progressives what Ronald Reagan did for conservatives: not just advance their goals in government but provide an ideological touchstone that nourishes their movement for decades. The power Reagan gave to conservatives came in no small part because he was a proud advocate for his ideology. Obama could do the same thing, with as much lasting impact -- if he seizes the opportunity.