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The Sour Note In Obama’s Speech

In an otherwise masterful performance on Tuesday — if not the greatest speech on race in American history, then one of the greatest by a presidential candidate — Barack Obama made one decidedly ugly remark:

This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn’t look like you might take your job; it’s that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.

That is, the problem isn't strange-looking Americans taking your job, it's strange-looking foreigners, against whom Americans of all races, regions, creeds, and colors can unite. Will Wilkinson and Megan McArdle pounced on this immediately. What's so depressing about it is the way it mars Obama's genuinely inspiring vision of America as something more than a crude, zero-sum balancing of mutually antagonistic interest groups. Whether it's Republicans riding into office on fears of unqualified blacks leapfrogging whites for promotion and resentment of latte-sipping elites looking to gay-marry their children, or Democrats campaigning against a far-flung corporate conspiracy to keep the working man down while divvying up seats to their convention to fulfill racial and sexual quotas, both major parties have embraced and internalized the idea that individuals and groups can only thrive at the expense of everyone else. On multiple occasions in his speech, and indeed, throughout the campaign and his career, Obama has directly repudiated that notion. (It's one of the reasons he takes grief from certain segments of the lefty blogosphere.)

Or at least, he repudiates the politics of group antagonism up to the water's edge. Apparently, it's fair game to scapegoat people in other countries trying (just like Americans!) to build a prosperous future for themselves and their families for the economic travails of American workers. Fair game too, to use the system of international trade that on balance makes everyone better off as bogeyman, when he clearly knows better.

The best that can be said is that, unlike trade restrictionists on the left and immigration restrictionists on the right (and trade and immigration are really just two sides of the same coin) Obama almost certainly doesn't believe that non-Americans are deserving objects of fear or spite. And in pandering to such fears, he's lowering himself no further than the standard of either of his competitors. As Megan puts it:

I understand the political logic that forces Barack Obama to spend a fair amount of time hating on trade. But I sort of feel–call me a starry-eyed idealist though you will–that a speech urging Americans not to hate and fear people who are different from them, should perhaps itself forgo urging Americans to hate and fear people who are different from them. You know, to set a good example for the children.

Admittedly, a lecture on the structural causes of the decline of the manufacturing sector and the flight to skill probably wouldn't go over too well with the target audience for the speech. But one of Obama's rhetorical gifts, and perhaps his most impressive, is his ability to dissolve demographic barriers and present a vision of life as cooperative rather than competitive, in language accessible to ordinary listeners. As long as Obama is after a more perfect union, he ought to have the audacity to hope for a more perfect world.

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