A Place called Unity


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Obama’s nomination acceptance speech last Thursday (text | video) was never going to fall flat on its face. Compared to previous set piece events, the rhetoric was toned down and the content improved – all delivered in an electric atmosphere with the stadium backdrop shouting either confidence or hubris, depending on your optimism about the outcome on November 4th. And the placards being waved enthusiastically said ‘change’ – not ‘Obama’.

But what does ‘change’ really mean? And why is the idea of change so important for Obama’s campaign?

Now is the Time

Obama says America is at defining moment: ‘a moment when our nation is at war, our economy is in turmoil and the American promise has been threatened once more.’ He remains modest enough not to suggest that the real defining moment is his candidacy and the prospect of a Black family in the White House. The nation has been at war before, and will be again. Economic problems are also not unusual, even though he’s onto something when talking about McCain not getting it.

The ‘American promise’ is worth exploring in more detail, though. Obama describes it thus:

….that through hard work and sacrifice, each of us can pursue our individual dreams but still come together as one American family, to ensure that the next generation can pursue their dreams as well.

And, later:

… the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation; the fundamental belief that I am my brother’s keeper; I am my sister’s keeper.

The concept of the American promise allows Obama to emphasise the rewards of hard work while sidestepping the possibility of failure, using himself and his wife as examples. It resonates with the old saying that anyone can grow up to be President. But it also allows Obama to set out the balance, as he sees it, between the role of the individual, the market, and the state:

…each of us has the freedom to make of our own lives what we will, but that we also have the obligation to treat each other with dignity and respect.

…the market should reward drive and innovation and generate growth, but… businesses should live up to their responsibilities to create American jobs, look out for American workers, and play by the rules…

…government cannot solve all our problems, but what it should do is that which we cannot do for ourselves…It should ensure opportunity not just for those with the most money and influence, but for every American who’s willing to work.

Obama is actually suggesting a bigger role for the state, but in a very non-threatening way by making sure we understand the continuing importance of individuals and the market – in contrast to Republican policy, which he describes as ‘you’re on your own’. Later in the speech he suggests that, as a result, the balance between ‘individual responsibility and mutual responsibility’ has been lost, as well as:

… our sense of common purpose – our sense of higher purpose. And that’s what we have to restore.

Well, that’s a big ask.

Change in Practice

The middle 15 minutes or so of the 40-minute speech dealt with some specific policy issues: tax, energy, education, health, welfare benefits and foreign policy. The most improbable statement came early on:

I will cut taxes… for 95% of all working families.

Really? Along with investing in energy innovations, more and better paid teachers, easier access to college, more affordable health insurance, better employment conditions and social security?

The rationale makes sense in a country with little concept of the social wage, but it leaves Obama with a unconvincing explanation of how he’s going to pay for it all:

…by closing corporate loopholes and tax havens that don’t help America grow.


I will also go through the federal budget, line by line, eliminating programs that no longer work and making the ones we do need work better and cost less – because we cannot meet 21st-century challenges with a 20th-century bureaucracy.

The speech then moves swiftly back to the more comfortable arena of personal responsibility, correctly stating that it will take more than money to bring about change, and particularly highlighting the role of fathers, which of course he has done before. For those of us from Britain and Ireland, it’s striking how little he said about crime and anti-social behaviour – although when I was in the USA recently, I thought children were much better behaved than they are here.

The second most unlikely aim was that:

….in ten years, we will finally end our dependence on oil from the Middle East.

I do hope he succeeds, but it’s a long shot. Unusually, the emphasis here is firmly on what the state can do, rather on individual responsibility to cut energy use. It is an election, after all.

And then we come to foreign policy, which not surprisingly concentrated on Afghanistan and Iraq, with a nod to Israel, Iran and Georgia. I was more impressed here, although that weasel word responsibly, attached to the pledge to end the war in Iraq, is of course a concern. The emphasis on diplomacy and the mention of new partnerships, echoing the Berlin speech, was hopeful, although there was no mention of negotiating to get rid of nuclear weapons, as there was in Berlin.

So in policy terms, Obama’s ‘change’ involves the fulfilment of the ‘American promise’ through a rebalancing of the neoliberal contract between the state and the global market, mediated by individual responsibility and initiative. Not much new there, you may say. Obama introduced many of the proposals with the statement ‘now is the time’ – but for many in the USA and elsewhere, it’s always the time to campaign for better health care, education and so on.

Change means Unity

I’ve been sceptical about Obama’s policies, although obviously I’d like to see them happen. Of course the economy will be important in this election, but there’s also a very strong social and moral agenda. Obama ends his speech by finessing the difficult issues, as he did in The Audacity of Hope, in a way that’s both irritating and inspiring:

We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country. The reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than for those plagued by gang-violence in Cleveland, but don’t tell me we can’t uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals. I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in the hospital and to live lives free of discrimination. Passions fly on immigration, but I don’t know anyone who benefits when a mother is separated from her infant child or an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers. This too is part of America’s promise -the promise of a democracy where we can find the strength and grace to bridge divides and unite in common effort.

It’s irritating because the search for common ground can only go so far, but it’s inspiring because this is where he starts to develop his closing theme of unity: a broader unity than any seen before in the USA. He then brings in the sense of common purpose, sets some ground rules for the campaign by linking unity and patriotism, ends by quoting Martin Luther King – we cannot walk alone – and there you have it.

In social and moral terms, ‘change’ means unity. He’s back to the theme of one America which we first heard from him in the 2004 Democratic National Convention Speech (part 1| part2)

The Limits to Unity

The crowd loved it, of course, I lost count of the number of standing ovations, both for the mention of individuals and also for some of the policy issues. And of course, the problem with being cynical about change at the level Obama proposes is that his plans would make a difference to the lives of many American people – and a more mature foreign policy based on diplomacy rather than force would make a difference across the world.

It’s just that the bold claims he’s made, around tax, energy policy and foreign policy, raise the question of how much room for manoeuvre Obama really has. And is he already constraining his choices? Naomi Klein has pointed out that Obama’s recently appointed Chief Economic Advisor is Jason Ferman, who has defended Walmart’s labour policies because the store provides cheap goods for poor people. However, Klein also seems to think that American progressive organisations who back Obama will be compromised afterwards when they come to lobby his office. Why?

But the real problem with a campaign based on change through unity is that unity has its limits, and for good reasons. Powerful organisations and individuals will fight to protect their interests, and Obama has spoken about the power of the lobbyists. Sometimes a left of centre candidate has to make it clear in whose interests they are going to act when unity isn’t possible. These questions will come up in the campaign, as you can be very sure that McCain and Palin know whose interests they are going to represent.

I would still be campaigning for Obama if I lived in the USA. But I would expect to face some hard questions from the voters, and I wouldn’t always be sure about the answers.

The photo of Barack Obama making his acceptance speech is taken from Slate Magazine.
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Jenny Muir is a lecturer who lives and works in Belfast. You can also contact Jenny through e-mail: s.belfastATyahooDOTcoDOTuk

2 Responses

  1. Nick

    September 1, 2008 5:58 pm

    Obama appeals to me for all sorts of reasons. But one thing I noticed in his speech is that
    his strategy of universal tax cuts, expansion of public services and raising extra cash by a war on waste and bureaucracy is disconcertingly similar to the recent policies of the British conservatives. And equally unconvincing because in practice a war on waste usually turns into a further expansion of central government, quangoes and new legal provisions, requiring even more money. When will he have the courage to suggest that just a small fraction of the Pentagon’s astronomical budget would vastly improve the quality and availability of public services?

  2. Jenny Muir

    September 10, 2008 3:48 pm

    Well I left my reply for a while in case there would be any other comments, but I see this site doesn’t attract very many, yet.

    Although you have a point, I’m more concerned about the similarity with New Labour circa 1996, minus the tax cuts of course. All that hope being built up. And since this post, the race is starting to look tighter, and much more starkly about a battle between two Americas. It’ll be interesting to see how Obama responds to the McCain/ Palin team – who are now also emphasising ‘change’.