Published on May 6, 2008
By her husband's logic, Michelle Obama must be a heavily armed xenophobic religious zealot, because boy is she bitter. This C-SPAN video of a speech delivered by Mrs. Obama in North Carolina last Friday is characteristic of her peculiar recent performances on the stump. It is an hour-long talk to supporters who just want something to cheer about, and who get some opportunities at the outset, but then find themselves treated to a profoundly and relentlessly negative vision of American life.
She first offers, as she often does in her appearances, a kind of victim's history of the 2008 Democratic primary race. In Mrs. Obama's telling, the Obama campaign becomes not an extraordinary mix of strategy and skill, but a sad reflection on the unfairness of American life. The bar, we are told, is always being raised just as her husband is about to reach it. They said he couldn't win because he didn't have an organization. Then he built an organization, so they said he couldn't win because he didn't have money. He raised money, so they said he couldn't win because he couldn't win caucuses. He won caucuses, so they said he couldn't win because he couldn't win primaries.
In the tone and substance of the story is the implication that the fact that this race isn't over is evidence of a profound injustice done to her husband. “The bar is constantly changing for this man,” she tells us. Of course, the only relevant bar in an election is whether you win a majority, and Sen. Obama has yet to win a majority of Democratic delegates. If he did, the race would be over. The bar's not moving.
But this tale of woe is really only an introduction to a larger and more sweeping list of bars getting raised just as hard working people are reaching for them. “So the bar has been shifting and moving in this race,” she says, “but the irony is, the sad irony is, that's exactly what is happening to most Americans in this country.”
In Michelle Obama's America, everybody's suffering, no one has time to make any friends, no one earns enough to eke out a living anymore, and the bar of success is always being moved just out of reach. “Folks are struggling like never before,” she says, and in a nation struggling like never before, society cannot stand the strain.
What happens in that nation is that people do become isolated, they do live in a level of division, because see when you're that busy struggling all the time, which most people that you know and I know are, see you don't have time to get to know your neighbors, you don't have time to reach out and have conversations to share stories, in fact you feel very alone in your struggle because you feel somehow it must be your fault that you're struggling that hard, everybody else must be doing ok, I must be doing something wrong, so you hide…What happens in that kind of nation is that people are afraid. Because when your world's not right no matter how hard you work, then you become afraid of everyone and everything, because you don't know whose fault it is, why you can't get a handle on life, why you can't secure a better future for your kids.
In such a state of debilitating terror, of course, we can have no hope for the next generation. “Our fear,” Mrs. Obama says, “is helping us to raise a nation of young doubters, young people who are insular and they're timid, and they don't try because they already heard us tell them why they can't succeed.”
It turns out, also, that it didn't use to be this way. In fact, a great bulk of Mrs. Obama's speech is devoted to nostalgia for a simpler time — an odd approach for a progressive, yet an altogether common one on the left today. She describes a steady downward path from that golden age of distant memory. “We know where we're living,” she tells the slightly confused audience, “this is where we are right now, and this has been the case for my entire lifetime: that trajectory of hope has gotten more difficult for regular folks.”
Her listeners have to wonder exactly what she has in mind by “regular folks” when Mrs. Obama says that after completing their Ivy League undergraduate and graduate educations, she and her husband “found ourselves in a position like most young couples, with our PhDs and JDs and MPHs and LMNOPs, all those wonderful degrees, all mired in debt. We had not paid off our loan debt until just a few years ago.” But whether you are highly educated multi-millionaires or not, in Michelle Obama's America, chances are you're afraid, isolated, and hopeless.
Her husband, of course, manages a peppier and more upbeat stump speech, but in fact the same dark view of American life permeates his rhetoric too. Both Obamas seem to think the country is deeply depressed, and in need of a spiritual, economic, and political savior.
This view of America has been a real problem for the Left in the Bush years. As the liberal labor economist Stephen Rose has put it, “What progressives generally say about the economy is unrelentingly pessimistic — stagnant wages, rising costs, overwhelming burdens of debt. It's a message that doesn't resonate with the middle class — not only because it's overly negative (by itself political poison), but because it's simply flat out wrong.”
This gospel of bitterness arises from one analysis of what is unquestionably an anxious middle class, and one that believes the nation's politics is on the wrong track. But anxiety is not necessarily a sign of desperation and injustice. Aspiration, too, can leave families anxious, as they strive to reach high aims with no guarantees. A political message that speaks to the aspirations of American families, rather than imagining that America is on the brink of suicide, would be a welcome and quite possibly a winning message in this election year.
It would seek to offer help to families facing uncertainties on the path of upward mobility, and would offer to fix some of the institutional failings that might create avoidable anxieties in a changing world, but would not describe the striving of America's lower middle class as tale of failure and anguish. It would offer a reform agenda aimed at fusing American ambition with the energies of the market, rather than a cathartic transformation aimed at a return to an imaginary past.
The candidate of hope, it seems, draws much of his energy from a sense that America is hopeless; and the progressive in the race yearns for the America of his childhood. Let's hope his opponent can do better.
— Yuval Levin is the Hertog fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and senior editor of The New Atlantis magazine.