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Obama The Communitarian

Alan Wolfe is a TNR contributing editor and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. His latest book, The Future of Liberalism (Knopf), will be published in early February. 

Throughout his campaign for the presidency, Barack Obama's language mixed liberal themes of hope and purpose with a communitarian emphasis on duty and responsibility. In his inaugural address, the latter language was so loud that the former could barely be heard.

In difficult times it makes a certain amount of sense to stress how we are all in the boat together. But I, for one, think the times demand more liberalism and less communitarianism. The key line--"For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies"--is one I would have applauded enthusiastically during the Clinton years. I fear it may come back to haunt the Obama years.

This is the time for government to act. I say this not out of some social democratic commitment to the idea that it is always time for government to act but out of the recognition that over-reliance on the market during the Bush years makes substantial reliance on government during the Obama years essential. We suffer from no crisis of will. Our problem is that the economy needs huge inflows of cash that private firms cannot or will not provide. Obama is going to need all the help he can muster to get the right kind of stimulus plan through Congress and in pursuit of that goal, this speech gives him no great advantages. 

That said, Obama was right to link himself and his election to America's past. He need not have done that; he could have emphasized that the election of an African-American breaks with an America whose Constitution protected slavery and whose history has been anything but an interrupted march toward equality. Instead, and brilliantly, he evoked a history in which the sacrifices of the past made possible the gains of the present. There was nothing "leftwing" about Obama's patriotism. This was not a speech for "liberal America" but for all of America.

Perhaps the present economic crisis will remedy itself soon enough, making analogies between this moment and the election of FDR seem forced. But we do face gargantuan challenges from abroad and at home. And while Obama struck all the right notes in his not very subtle digs at the Bush administration's approach to foreign policy, the need for reach and ambition in domestic policy did not come through.   

FDR's inaugural address, best known for reminding us that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, contained a number of other inspiring lines. "They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers," said FDR or the bankers of his era. "They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish." Wanting to be inclusive, even of bankers, BHO avoided language such as that. This was the time for fire and he gave us too much ice. No one doubts that Obama could have offered the magnificent oratory he has provided time after time. Clearly he made a choice not to do on this occasion. He knows politics better than I do and I hope his decision proves to be the right one. Right now I feel let down.

 --Alan Wolfe