Character makes a comeback

It’s almost as if Obama was channeling Thomas Frank last night. The President’s remarks on the American “character” in last night’s speech did exactly what Frank said the Democrats had to do: counter the Republican’s appeal to American self-reliance (or just plain selfishness) with the argument that “we are a society,” and position healthcare as a public good. And best of all he couched this principled stand for liberalism in an emotional passage about Ted Kennedy.

“What we face,” [Kennedy] wrote, “is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.”

I’ve thought about that phrase quite a bit in recent days — the character of our country. One of the unique and wonderful things about America has always been our self-reliance, our rugged individualism, our fierce defense of freedom and our healthy skepticism of government. And figuring out the appropriate size and role of government has always been a source of rigorous and sometimes angry debate….

[Ted Kennedy’s] large-heartedness — that concern and regard for the plight of others — is not a partisan feeling. It is not a Republican or a Democratic feeling. It, too, is part of the American character. Our ability to stand in other people’s shoes. A recognition that we are all in this together; that when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand. A belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgment that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise.

No doubt about it: Obama won the night. It was no contest. Most Republicans looked dour or sulked throughout the speech; the official response by Charles Boustany was uninspired and didn’t offer a single constructive idea; and Joe Wilson acted like a Town Hall rube. If these are the Defenders of Liberty and Free Enterprise against the Socialist Alien who has taken over the White House, then may God have mercy on all free men.

Joe Wilson has apologized, but of course he’s not really sorry. He just feels like a fool, as he should. I shouted at the television a few times, and though I am not ready to take back everything I said about Obama’s leadership on this issue — or what the squabble over healthcare reform has revealed about Obama’s leadership — I feel contrite. Maybe speeches and appeals to reasonable compromise can actually prevail over finger-biting, shouting and demagoguery. Or maybe there was method in all the summer madness, and it will turn out that the President was more cunning than his opponents. He let them blow off steam, rant and rave, make him out to be a bogey man; and now he can appear reasonable, calming, reassuringly above the Town Hall fray, and inspiring.

The President made a good speech, some say a great speech. Every early indication is that the healthcare debate will continue. The progressives still cling to the public option; the GOP remains entrenched. Last night’s speech may not change much on that front, but it may re-animate the conversation (and boost the President’s ratings).

Now the big unanswered question that remains is not a policy question at all: it’s a question about the American “character.”

I wonder if we’re ready for a debate about “the moral issue” and the content of our character — and if the President is ready to lead us through one.

I wonder if we take ideas like this seriously anymore, whether we can even talk coherently about a character that is uniquely or distinctly American, an American ethos. It’s almost Victorian to talk in this way. Or the word “character” used in this sense seems to have a Harvard pedigree. “The character of our country” sounds like something JFK might say; Obama took it from Ted Kennedy’s letter.

You can’t be scientific about society when you talk about character. Or if you try to be, you will probably have to rely on the notion that there is what Edward Banfield called a “moral basis” to social arrangements, to prosperity and backwardness. Be that as it may, it is a question way beyond the ken of technocrats and wonks. And it may be one of the most important questions of the Obama era.

I wonder, too, if the President has read our character right.

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