President Obama, civic republican

Can he substitute “Follow me!” for “Soooooo-eeeeeee!” as a political slogan?

Reading and reflection have convinced me that I missed the central point of Obama’s (first) Inaugural Address: its appeal back to the civic republican tradition of Tom Paine and Benjamin Rush, which emphasized public virtue rather than individual prosperity. He seems intent on asking us to take our pride from our citizenship rather than from the size of our television sets.

Obama’s address strikes that theme early, first by addressing (active) “fellow citizens” rather than (passive) “fellow Americans” and then by saying:

America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we the people have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents.

and then concludes on it as on the key-note:

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends — hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

This is the source of our confidence — the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.

This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed — why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent Mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

“Let it be told to the future world … that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet (it).”

America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

The civil republican tradition was not the winner in the post-Revolutionary struggle to define the new nation. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison all had civic-republican tendencies of thought, but that wasn’t the way they governed, and in the end Hamilton, despite his tragically short life, outlived them all. It would be wrong to blame Hamiltonianism alone for Horatio Alger and the two Gilded Ages, but they bear his hallmark.

Nor is Obama not so one-sided as to neglect Hamiltonian wisdom. He promises prosperity as well as liberty, and professes himself a Hamiltonian in his preference for a mixed economy over laisser-faire.

Still – and this is consistent with much of his campaign oratory – Obama seems intent on righting the balance, on reminding people of what they should do rather than what should be done for them, on substituting “Follow me!” as a political slogan for the now-conventional “Soooo-eeeeeeeeee! Here pig pig pig pig pig!”

Update Michael Tomasky spotted Obama’s civic republicanism more than two years ago. Jeff Weintraub wrote perceptively six months ago about the disconnect between the civic-republican themes of the Obama campaign and what had become the more conventional rhetoric of progressivism. (In another essay, Weintraub and Andrei Markovitz draw the contrast between with the “interest-group liberalism” that characterized, e.g., the Hillary Clinton campaign, noting in particular Obama’s success in getting liberal audiences to cheer speeches full of unabashed patriotism.)

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: