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Joe Conason: Echoes of FDR — Obama’s Address Links Freedom to Security, Dignity

By Joe Conason |

So much for the “Grand Bargain” — or at least for the not-so-grand gutting of Social Security and Medicare that the “very serious” thought-leaders of Washington political and media circles have always found so appealing. Whatever President Barack Obama may have contemplated up until now, his second inaugural address, delivered Monday on the steps of the Capitol, bluntly repudiated Republican arguments against the social safety net, and forcefully identified those popular programs with the most sacred American values.

“We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity,” Obama said, “not only because it is the responsibility we have to each other as human beings, but because security and dignity, for every man, woman and child, are the existential foundations of freedom.

“For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn. We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss or a sudden illness or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative. They strengthen us.”

In a modern nation, the president suggested, those commitments are indeed fundamental to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This is essentially the same message articulated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his 1941 “Four Freedoms” State of the Union address, which included employment, social security and health care as defining aspects of a truly democratic society.

Every liberal and progressive (and presumably every conservative and wingnut, too) recognized that moment as renewing Obama’s allegiance to principles that have sustained the Democratic Party since FDR. Far from undermining freedom, enterprise and productivity, as right-wing propaganda insists, the president argued that those guarantees — still cherished by the overwhelming majority of Americans — have strengthened the nation.

Obama acknowledged the financial problem that rising health care poses for Medicare; eventually, he said, the federal budget must be stabilized, with “hard choices” ahead. Yet that objective will not be achieved, he pledged, by undoing the ligaments of security and liberty that American leaders have stitched together over the past century, nor by pitting younger people against their parents and grandparents (as the opponents of Social Security and Medicare habitually attempt to do). He pointedly rejected “the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.”

Precisely what the president means when he talks about hard choices should be revealed next month, when he will no doubt feel politically obliged to discuss how to reduce the deficit in his State of the Union address. Troubling signals have emanated from the White House that he might accept sharp and unnecessary cuts in Medicare and Social Security to achieve the “grand bargain” — which Washington’s conventional wisdom often defines as the only legacy worth pursuing for him.

Indeed, Obama has sometimes appeared to be listening when such very serious types, the over-privileged and under-informed, complain about burdensome “entitlements.” Those worthies might well have assumed that he would ultimately implement their mindless, heartless and destructive proposals.

But in Monday’s inspirational new beginning, this country’s 44th president set forth a very different expectation, promising hope and not disappointment to the people who re-elected him. The responsibility of his most devoted supporters will be to hold him true to it.

Joe Conason is editor in chief of Click here to contact him, follow him on Twitter: @JConason, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

» on 01.25.13 @ 06:53 PM

Obama is often top-notch at giving inspirational talks.

His record and priorities are a whole lot murkier.

Moving beyond noble sentiments to effective leadership is the part that often bog him down.

Certainly, there’s a limit to what you can do with a Tea Bag Congress that values
semi-automatic assault rifles more than cancer research, economic recovery, or
the arts.

But having served in the Senate before his first election, Obama had some idea
what he was getting himself into.

Now that the Bush wars and economic meltdown are receding, it will be up to
him and the opaque Harry Reid to frame, then negotiate, programs that can pass
and also help real-world, non-Beltway Americans live better lives.

Can he do it, and not just talk about it?

We’ll see.

» on 01.26.13 @ 03:30 PM

Joe, what republicans and publius, tea partiers are complaining about is the unsustainability of these programs and the definite lurch they have pushed our culture toward dependency, not security. That dependency is not something a true progressive should be proud of because it’s what politicians use to trap votes. Where is the liberty in that?

FDR was a progressive and saw government as a large force in society’s life. He like most leftists, progressives and liberals makes the monumental mistake of believing government is benevolent, kind, that its motives, altruistic. So thought the soviet citizen, the Chinese Maoist, the poor Cambodian farmer.

Governments are not composed of ideas, people, they are composed of people and the danger we the people pose in government was brought to the forefront by our founding fathers. The limits they imposed on the power and reach of government were not because they were afraid of the idea of “social security”, the “safety of the public” or the “greater good”, but because of what people do when these are perverted to gain power and they always are.

The strength of our people is not measured in how much we have to bail them out with a giant all consuming government, but in how they pull them selves up without one. Many of us have endured poverty, pulled our selves up and without the “benevolent hand of government” managed to succeed. For some of us success is not the lifestyles of the rich and famous but simply being able to survive on our own.

Unlike many white well off social liberals I don’t feel guilty about my success I earned it all on my own. Perhaps if those of you who are so compelled to help others would invest your own time and money (something I have done) then you might appreciate the story of the fisherman, give a man a fish and he will be back for more, teach a man to fish and he will feed himself. You don’t teach a man to fish with a government check.

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