Today Obama made an appeal to our “better angels.” Hope over fear. Unity over discourse. He reminded us that we are “bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.” He challenged us to face our difficulties and stop avoiding all of those “unpleasant decisions” we need to make. He urged us to embrace the virtues of hard-work, loyalty, courage, humility. He warned against the self-interest that comes with unrestrained markets.
Like FDR he reminded us of our economic difficulties, proposed infrastructure development, and instilled confidence. Like Jimmy Carter he asked us to sacrifice for the common good. Like George W. Bush he emphasized the power of freedom in the world. Like Abraham Lincoln he called for a remaking of America. He made an appeal to the ideals of the nation–ideals for which Americans were willing to die. Concord, Gettysburg, Normandy, Khe Sahn.
This speech was the culmination of a message that Obama has been preaching since he first started his run for president. The call for sacrifice and virtue and the common good draws directly from the very old American tradition of civic humanism. For the American Republic to survive in a time of crisis, the Founders believed, the American people must be willing to put the interests of the nation over their own interests. This is the “promise of citizenship.”
There is a great paradox in Obama’s vision. He wants us to turn backward in order to move forward. He is deeply committed, like most liberals are, to a belief in human progress. He believes in America’s unlimited potential. But at the same time he believes that the best way to achieve this kind of progress is to be humble and show restraint. In order to move forward Americans must return to ideas rooted in the founding. The very survival and future of this free and liberty-loving republic depends on virtues that may require us to sacrifice for others. I am not sure if Obama has ever read JGA Pocock or Gordon Wood, but he has certainly revived the republican tradition that these historians write about.