One thing you can say about Barack Obama: the man can deliver a great speech.
So it’s interesting, if not downright fascinating, that the White House has chosen to highlight his 2005 Commencement Speech at Knox College. This is a mediocre speech filled with clichés of the moment lifted from airport bookshelves. “As Tom Friedman points out in his new book, The World Is Flat,” Senator Obama intones, “over the last decade or so, these forces—technology and globalization—have combined like never before. Now business not only has the ability to move jobs wherever there's a factory, but wherever there's an internet connection.”
Tom Friedman? This theme of a changing economy is utterly standard fare for Republicans and Democrats, repeated endlessly with no particular insight. It’s not terrible, just predictable and uninspiring.
But according to a breathless missive from White House flak Dan Pfeiffer, this dull speech from an obscure Senator is of historical import. “Eight years ago, not long after he was elected to the United States Senate, President Obama went to Knox College in his home state of Illinois where he laid out his economic vision for the country.”
Really? This cult like elevation of the banal to the extraordinary resembles the great comic film Galaxy Quest, in which another planet has built a civilization around intercepted episodes of the Star Trek television show. The well intentioned but hapless aliens don’t understand that it’s just…. a show.
There is something dispiriting and distasteful about any leader who is more interested in self-aggrandizement than reality.
By now in the White House, the not so hapless professionals understand full well that they are running a show with a very talented but increasingly bored and fickle lead. Obama has proven so ineffectual, no one really expects anything to change when he opens a new production but, still, the show must go on. Gun control? Immigration? Syria? Egypt? Some of these Obama shows were better than others, but can anyone say that the President’s role in these events made much of a difference?
That brings us to jobs and the economy. It is understandable that a law professor and community organizer whose knowledge of the workings of the economy was largely theoretical could spout thin slogans hailed around Hyde Park and believe he was on to something. But that was 2005. Are we really to understand that the searing experience of his own presidential failures at economic revival have taught him nothing? Is it really that bad?
In the 2005 speech, the young Senator Obama predictably constructs his argument around an attack on the Bush administration’s economic policy. “In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society. But in our past there has been another term for it - Social Darwinism, every man and woman for him or herself. It's a tempting idea, because it doesn't require much thought or ingenuity. It allows us to say to 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 lets us say to the child born into poverty - pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”