This was not the speech we’ve been waiting for. From Mitt Romney to Newt Gingrich to Glenn Beck, the conservative assault on Barack Obama comes down to this: unfettered capitalism is true Americanism. Obama’s efforts to use government to make American capitalism more stable just constitute an alien imposition, hatched in foreign lands, and designed to make us less free.
Obama will either effectively answer that charge, or he will lose the 2012 election. And he did not do so Tuesday night. Yes, he talked about government efforts to help improve American manufacturing, American education, American energy policy. But he did not use those proposals to make the essential broader point: that vigorous government does indeed represent true Americanism, because democratic government is the mechanism through which Americans come together to solve problems they cannot solve alone. Obama’s central point should have been that since America’s founding, government has built much of the public infrastructure that makes American capitalism possible. And since the progressive era, it has been government’s efforts to humanize and stabilize capitalism that has ameliorated the savage cycles of boom and bust that have fueled chaos and revolution overseas. It is today’s Republicans, Obama should have said, who have forgotten this core truth about America. Because they forgot it during the Bush years, they helped plunge the U.S. into the worst recession since the 1930s. And because they keep forgetting it, a Republican-controlled Washington would doom America’s chances for a true economic recovery.
Instead of embracing the ideological divide at the heart of this campaign, Obama tried to bridge it. At the beginning of his speech, and again at the end, his central metaphor was the American military: an institution where people put aside their differences to serve the country. But unlike the military, the political arena is not supposed to be a place where people check their ideological convictions at the door and submit to the will of a higher authority. To the contrary, American politics—and especially presidential politics—is a clash of visions, a struggle to define America’s mission and America’s character. And at this moment in time, the essence of that struggle is the debate over whether activist government can make Americans more safe, more prosperous, and more free.
In many ways, Barack Obama is a far more formidable figure than the Republicans vying to run against him. But he needs to enter—and win—that debate, and he missed an opportunity to do so Tuesday night.