Obama has conceded America’s past to his opponents. It may cost him the election.

1. Who built that business?

Here’s the latest example of Obama’s concession.

As political junkies are aware (and attack ads will soon make the rest of America aware), President Obama recently said, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

Former Governor Romney pounced on Obama’s statement: “This idea of criticizing and attacking success, of demonizing those in all walks of life who have been successful, is something that is so foreign to us that we can’t understand it.”

Obama, of course, was not attacking success but supporting it. He was explaining one aspect of how entrepreneurs become successful – the necessary partnership businesses have with society and government. Obama feels the need to explain it because he wants to make the bigger point that Romney’s go-it-alone policies will hurt entrepreneurs. And, strictly speaking, Obama was referring to roads and bridges, not businesses. Here’s the quote in context:

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.

The pundits say that Obama harmed himself by stating his case in such a way that a sentence could be taken out of context and easily misconstrued, and I suppose they’re right.  One of the Washington Post’s political pundits, Aaron Blake, points out that Obama’s remark feeds into the perception of him as a “big-government liberal.”

Obama frequently tries to express an individual’s relationship to society and government. But he is largely wasting his breath. Why? Because he and most other progressive politicians I know have not laid the philosophical groundwork for it.

Here’s one approach Obama could have taken, had the ground been prepared. The Founders believed in what Alexander Hamilton called “the first principles” of society and government. Nowhere perhaps were those principles more succinctly put than in Joseph Priestley’s “An Essay on the First Principles of Government, and on the Nature of Political, Civil, and Religious Liberty.” In it, Priestley, who was an English scientist (he purportedly discovered oxygen) and natural and political philosopher, summarized Locke’s Second Treatise of Government in strikingly progressive terms. Priestley starts by positing that “the human species itself is capable of . . . unbounded improvement.” Priestley is practically waiving one of Obama’s ubiquitous “Forward” signs.

But there’s a problem in paradise: individualism. Priestley does “what almost all political writers have done before us”: he imagines a state of nature. It is Locke’s – and later the Founders’ – state of nature:

We must suppose a number of people existing, who experience the inconvenience of living independent and unconnected; who are exposed, without redress, to insults and wrongs of every kind, and are too weak to procure themselves many of the advantages, which they are sensible might easily be compassed by united strength.

What then saves us from this extreme individualism – the individualism, I might point out, that so many Tea Partyers advocate? Priestley answers:

The great instrument in the hand of divine providence, of this progress of the species towards perfection, is society, and consequently government. [Emphasis original.]

How are legitimate governments created? Priestley tracks Locke again by stating that individuals entrust some of their rights (some police powers, for instance) to society and to government, and government in return protects society and individuals and helps them achieve their notions of happiness.

These are some of the Framers’ first principles of government, perhaps the most essential ones. This is Lockean liberalism, the kind of liberalism we all share. This is where the Declaration of Independence gets its notion of inalienable rights – rights that we entrust to the government but never fully transfer.  The Framers’ political philosophy is based on the idea that we need society and government to help us improve ourselves.

So Obama can – should – connect his concept of an individual’s relationship to society and government with the Founding Fathers. 1 He could even throw in some religion, as Priestley does above with his description of government “in the hand of divine providence.” “Big God” sure beats “big government.”

This is just one example, based on the latest campaign kerfuffle-du-jour, of the kind of connections Obama can make to the Founders.

Obama and other progressives can’t rush out and effectively make this point about entrepreneurs and government tomorrow, I’ll admit. Obama has to do something similar to what the Republicans have been doing since at least the 1960’s and to what the Tea Party has been doing for the last three years or so. He has to begin connecting his policies with the nation’s founding. In other words, Obama has to do the hard work of political apostleship.

If he had done the groundwork by now, he could have simply used some kind of symbol, some powerful buzzword, perhaps, to link his concept of an individual’s relationship to society and government to something people are proud of instead of to something they fear.

Who built your business? Obama could ask rhetorically. We all did. Since when? Since Franklin Roosevelt? No. Since George Washington.

Obama won’t do it.

2. Obama’s missing theology

To me, an important hint about this election cycle happened late in the contested portion of the Republican primaries.  Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum said that Obama’s environmental policies were “about some phony ideal. Some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology.”

The three or four news media stories I read or saw the next day suggested that Santorum’s remark was tantamount to calling Obama’s faith into question. I immediately split in two. My citizen self understood “theology” as a term confined to religious dogma, and I agreed with the media commentary. My evangelical self, though, understood “theology” as Christianese for “worldview,” a worldview informed by theology, philosophy, and politics. Those three abstract nouns have been affecting one another in the American evangelical mind since around 1980. You have to hear pastors attack one another’s theologies as, you know, emanating from the pit of hell or something, to understand that they aren’t questioning one another’s salvation in the process.

I’m not defending Santorum. I think his environmental policies are more unbiblical and unsound than Obama’s, but that’s beside the point.

When I came back together that morning, I realized not only that many progressives have no idea what more Evangelical Christians mean by “theology,” but also that many progressives have no word at all for it, no concept of it at all.

Obama lacks this sense of “theology” – theology as a comprehensible worldview harmonizing common notions of God, national destiny, and policy.  His opponents paint him as a starry-eyed idealist (the source for some of the “phony theology” accusations, I think), but he is, of course, a pragmatist. He told Time shortly after his election that he hoped no one would ever discern anything like an “Obama doctrine.” His “doctrine,” such as it was, would only be to do the practical thing.

But his idealist tone mixed with his pragmatic style leaves him open, even after four years on the national stage, to being defined by his enemies. They make him into an ideologue of something (at best) rootless. I also blame racism for a lot of the misunderstanding regarding Obama, though Obama doesn’t – for the high percentage of Americans that still think he is Muslim, for instance, or that still think he was born outside of the United States. I also blame our disintegrating news media and the coming flood of unaccounted-for PAC advertisements. But I also blame Obama’s continuing vulnerability to being misunderstood on his failure to connect America’s past to its future.

3. Political apostles

It’s no use for a progressive to claim that the separation of church and state would prevent her from making these kind of connections. I believe in a high wall between the church and state, but I do so mostly because I know how intertwined religion and politics are. Hobbes and Locke and the rest of the philosophers the Founders read expressed their philosophies largely in religious terms. This isn’t always just because they had a largely Christian audience or because they lived in a society that mixed church and state.  Wikipedia says this of Priestley: “What appeared to others as political arguments were for Priestley always, at their root, religious arguments.” They are for me, too.

We’re living in an age in which religion is being mixed with politics in ways that make most of us uncomfortable. Witness the rise of Islamicist parties in many countries that experienced last year’s Arab Spring. I find it hard to believe, though, that only fundamentalists are voting Islamicists into power in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Others are, too – others who may not agree with all of the Islamicists’ policies but who feel the Islamicists’ connection with their own political and religious roots.

Similarly, it’s not just self-described born-again Christians who are susceptible to feeling a resonance between policy proposals and their notion of what America is, particularly as that notion expresses itself through America’s founding. Granted, we haven’t always been and we won’t always be so susceptible to this resonance. We are now, though: we’re living in times somewhat like Lincoln’s before his presidency, with a deep political divide and a greatly renewed interest in the Founders’ intent.

Obama needn’t sound like an evangelist preacher. He need only do the work of a political apostle.  What is my notion of a political apostle? Someone who successfully reconnects a nation’s past, particularly its founding, with its present and future in such a way that the nation is more connected with some of its founding truths. Lincoln, whose Christianity I might doubt since he never hinted that he believed in Christ’s divinity, did the work of an apostle. Lincoln’s opponents such as Douglas and Taney and their predecessors, such as Calhoun, had taken care to make connections with the Founders – erroneous ones, largely – and to paint a rosy and patriotic vision of America’s future consistent with it. Lincoln, however, countered them with extensive historical research into the republic’s founding. He was forever developing and changing his notion of America’s “political religion,” as he called it. He knew he couldn’t cede America’s past to the opposition. Many of his greatest speeches, including the Cooper Union speech and the Gettysburg Address, were largely scuffles with his opposition over who had the superior claim to America’s past.

From my point of view, more than just Obama’s reelection is at stake. If the states’ rights conservative view of the Constitution prevails, we’ll be further than ever from true original constitutional intent. Here’s what I mean.

4. The problem with Tea Party theology

If there’s a Tea Party “theology” in the way I’m defining it, there’s certainly a Tea Party hermeneutics. Have you ever noticed how the strict construction model of Constitutional interpretation tracks the fundamentalists’ literal model of biblical interpretation? I quickly compare them here using parallel construction:

Many people worship the Bible. They worship the words instead of the God the words point to. To worship the Bible, one need not have more than a passing faith in God. One must believe only in the literal truth of what the Bible says. Part of that literal truth is God. One must believe in God as much as, and no more than, one must believe that Methuselah lived to be 969 or that Elisha’s axe swam.

Many people worship the Constitution. They worship the words instead of the truths and concepts the words point to. To worship the Constitution, one need not have more than a passing faith in mankind. One must believe only in the literal truth of what the Constitution says. Part of that literal truth is that all men are created equal. One must believe in mankind’s equality as much as, and no more than, Congress’s authority to tax or an individual’s right to bear arms.

In both cases, the hermeneutics represent the victory of the letter over the spirit.

5. I’m not optimistic

Little that Obama or his campaign says or does is ever traced back in the public’s mind to a coherent theory of government implemented before, say, the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. The Republicans, on the other hand, captured the American flag sometime in the middle of the last century. That was a warm-up act to what the Tea Party has given them: the United States Constitution itself and the whole troupe of Founding Fathers.

Obama’s “Forward” signs sometimes feel to me more like an escape from the past and present than it does a future based on an articulated understanding of the past. In contrast, as my friend Bill O. pointed out to me this morning, Romney’s slogan “Believe in America” compounds the Republicans’ long-held interest in a version of America’s past.  From at least a strategy perspective, Obama and other progressives don’t seem to believe in Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory.” They don’t believe in any version of what Lincoln would have called “political religion.” When Tea Party advocates dress up in three-cornered hats and take what I think are disturbingly simplistic classes on Constitutional law, progressives laugh. But they are going to pay for their dismissive responses dearly.

  1. I’m looking forward to reading E.J. Dionne’s new book Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent. It suggests ways that the current left and right reflect emphases on community and individualism, respectively, that go back to the founding.