In his bid to be remembered as a transformational leader, President Obama is following the playbook of an ideological opposite, Margaret Thatcher. First you win the argument, she used to say, then you win the vote.
Obama is gradually winning the argument about what government can and should do. His State of the Union address was an announcement of that fact — and a warning to conservatives that to remain relevant, they will have to move beyond the premise that government is always the problem and never the solution.
It’s ridiculous for critics to charge that Tuesday night’s speech was not sufficiently bipartisan. Repairing the nation’s infrastructure is not a partisan issue; bridges rust at the same rate in Republican-held congressional districts as in Democratic ones. The benefits of universal preschool will accrue in red states as well as blue. Climate change is not deterred by the fact that a majority of the Republican caucus in the House doesn’t believe in it.
There is no bipartisan compromise between “do something” and “do nothing.” Obama’s re-election reflected the progress he has made in convincing Americans that “do something” is the only option — and that “do nothing” leads inexorably to decline.
Thatcher’s reshaping of British politics and governance is instructive. The Iron Lady came to power at a time when Britain was sinking. The ideological pendulum had swung too far to the left, and the nominally socialist Labor Party, architect of the modern British welfare state, was out of ideas. Thatcher’s Conservative government roused the nation from its torpor. She was an enormously polarizing figure, and much of what she did — fighting the unions, privatizing state industries and public housing — was met with bitter resistance.
Today, Britain remains one of the wealthiest countries in the world and continues to play a major role in international affairs. London is arguably the world’s pre-eminent financial center. I doubt any of this would be the case if Thatcher had not won the argument about how her nation should move forward.
When Obama took office, the United States was in a similar funk. Ronald Reagan’s conservative ideas had been corrupted by his followers into a kind of anti-government nihilism. Reagan wanted to shrink government; today’s Republican Party wants to destroy it.
Obama assumed leadership of a country in which inequality was growing and economic mobility declining, with the result that the American dream was becoming less attainable. It was a country whose primary and secondary schools lagged far behind international norms; whose airports, roads and bridges were showing their age; and, most important, whose path to continued prosperity, in the age of globalization and information technology, was not entirely clear.
Obama’s State of the Union speech was a detailed reiteration of his position that we can and must act to secure our future — and that government can and must be one of our principal instruments.
To understand why Americans re-elected Obama in November and sent more Democrats to both houses of Congress, consider the Republican response delivered by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., following the president’s address.
Never mind the unforgettable moment when Rubio stooped almost out of sight and reached for a bottle of water, all the while trying to look straight ahead at the camera like John Cleese in some Monty Python sketch. I felt genuinely sorry for him — and appalled at the Republican Party’s incompetence at basic stagecraft. First they give Clint Eastwood an empty chair to perform with at the convention, and now this?
Even more unfortunate, in the end, was the utter lack of ideas in Rubio’s speech.
“More government isn’t going to help you get ahead, it’s going to hold you back,” Rubio said. Yet he also said that he never would have been able to go to college without government-backed student loans. And he spoke touchingly of how Medicare paid for the care his father received in his final days and the care his mother needs now.
I expected him to try to reconcile this contradiction. Instead, he went back to portraying government as something to be tamed rather than something to be used. To a majority of Republican primary voters, this makes sense. To the electorate as a whole, it might have made sense 30 years ago — but not today.
Margaret Thatcher never won the hearts of her many opponents. But by winning her, argument she shaped a nation’s future. There’s an increasing chance that historians will say the same of Barack Obama.