By David Brooks
As I listened to President Obama on stage in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday night, I thought back to the days more than four years ago, when he spoke at a Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa, or on the night he won the caucuses of that state. There was his romantic vision, the possibility of transformational change.
I don’t know if we are worse off now than we were back then, but we were certainly worse off then than we knew. The financial crisis of the past years has exposed debilitating flaws in our way of life. It’s exposed the crushing burden of debt and the unsustainability of our entitlement system. It’s exposed flaws in our style of capitalism — the overreliance on finance, the concentration of power. It exposed a widening education gap; the educated have recovered from the recession while the unskilled fall further behind. It exposed even deeper dysfunctions in our political system.
Obama was rhetorically grand back then, but many of us have spent this year looking for even bigger strategies and policies.
The Republicans understand the severity of our economic problems, but they put too much faith in tax cuts. The Republicans understand that unless Medicare is reformed, it will swallow everything else, though judging from their convention, they are too timid to explain the problem or champion their own plan.
So, as I looked to President Obama’s speech Thursday night, I was looking to see if he was capable of a new burst of change.
There were parts of his speech that raised the old expectations. I liked the emphasis he put not on himself but on the word “you” — the idea that change comes organically from the bottom up. I liked his extraordinary self-awareness, his willingness to admit that often life on the campaign trail requires candidates to do silly things. I liked the sense of citizenship that pervaded his address, the sense of mutual obligation.
But what I was mostly looking for were big proposals, big as health care was four years ago. I had spent the three previous days watching more than 80 convention speeches without hearing a single major policy proposal in any of them. I asked governors, mayors and legislators to name a significant law that they’d like to see President Obama pass in a second term. Not one could. At its base, this is a party with a protective agenda, not a change agenda — dedicated to defending government in all its forms.
The Obama speech offered some important if familiar hints of big policy ideas. There was a vague hint of a major tax reform. There was a vague promise to accept an agreement based on the principle of the Simpson-Bowles committee on deficit reduction. But it’s hard to be enthusiastic about President Obama truly championing initiatives that get no more than a sentence or a clause.
Over all, the speech had a fierce opposition toward the Republicans and a desire for incremental continuity about what the Democrats themselves would offer. Worse, the speech was dominated by unexplained goals that were often worthy, but also familiar, modest and incommensurate with the problems at hand. The government should help more students attend community colleges. It should recruit more math and science teachers. These are good existing programs, but these are not policies to pinion a presidency around.
It would be nice if exports doubled. It would be nice if deficits came down gradually over the next 10 years. But the goals President Obama set in these spheres will probably be met if everybody in Washington carried on the status quo. They do not entail big change.
President Obama offered other small and worthy ideas, familiar to him since his days in the Senate, that would make America better — more long-lasting batteries, more trade agreements. But these are improvements fit for countries that are already firmly on the right track.
The country that exists is not on the right track. It has a completely dysfunctional political system. What was there in this speech that will make us think the next few years will be any different? America will only be governable again if there is a leader who breaks the mold and reframes the debate. Romney is unlikely to do that, and Obama’s speech didn’t offer much either.
In short, change is still the issue, and the focus of his solid but not extraordinary speech was incremental improvement. The next president has to do three big things, which are in tension with one another: increase growth, reduce debt and increase social equity. President Obama has the intelligence, the dexterity and the sense of balance to navigate these crosscutting challenges. But he apparently lacks the creativity to break out of the partisan categories, the trench warfare gridlock.
Thursday night’s speech showed the character and his potential. It didn’t show audacity and the fulfillment of that potential.