Following President Barack Obama’s second Inaugural address, the tendency in press commentary has been to over-emphasize its “liberalism” and to underplay what is really its central theme: a reassertion of values that go back to our country’s founding.
This is understandable: The press has to label things. And yes, many of the president’s proposals would be considered part of the liberal agenda by the standard of today’s politics, when any proposal that carries the connotation “government” or “regulation” is called liberal.
But it was not always so. It was not even recently so. In his superb book, Our Divided Political Heart, E.J. Dionne writes, “American history is defined by an irrepressible and ongoing tension between two core values: our love of individualism and our reverence for community.” This tension goes back to our founding and to the Federalist Papers. Virtually all of us hold both of these values, and much of our political history constitutes a debate over where the balance between them lies. But only rarely (as today) have we lost sight of the reality that there are two sides to America’s “political heart.”
Today, we have lost the balance. What Dionne calls “the Long Consensus”—an agreement on “who we are” as a nation that guided a century of growth, increasing prosperity, and social progress—has fallen apart. Obama’s presidency became “the locus of a great national struggle over who we are as a people.” The value of community—our sense that at some basic level we are one people and government acts in our name—no longer animates many of our citizens, or their elected representatives.
In his address, the president forcefully re-stated the balance that we have continually redefined over the course of our history:
We have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges, that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.
That idea, in and of itself, is neither liberal nor conservative; it is a pillar of our system.
The president’s address thus focuses squarely on what Dionne rightly calls “the central question in American politics”—can we restore a consensus, a balance within our “political heart,” without which we cannot govern ourselves? The answer matters profoundly to international educators.
The president said,
Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity, until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.
Welcoming bright young people to America is one of this association’s highest advocacy priorities. We understand that immigrants are not alien to our community, but are part of our community and have been since our founding. Throughout the generations, immigrants have helped renew America and have contributed to the greatness that we have achieved as a nation. This is an American value, long recognized as such (until recently) by both parties.
We now have a basis for completing this part of “our journey” because, for the first time in this century, both parties now see an electoral incentive for doing so. Immigration reform will come sooner or later—not because both parties have learned to be bipartisan, or to be nice to each other, but because their interests require it. That has always been the basis for bipartisanship.
Since 9/11, Americans have allowed themselves to become all too comfortable with the normality of war. The idea that war would be our normal condition, and that we would create a permanent fighting force that is always away at war, would have seemed profoundly un-American throughout most of our history. Too many of us take it for granted now.
This is an existential threat to international education. If war is our normal state, then we don’t need international understanding. And if we don’t need international understanding, then we don’t need us. More importantly, the American community—the democracy that defines us as American—cannot survive in a world defined by constant warfare.
The president devoted a striking amount of his speech to confronting this issue. He re-articulated an idea that would have seemed unexceptional to the “greatest generation” that built post-World War II America but which is too often lost sight of today: “Enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.” The president said, “We are also heirs to those who won the peace, and not just the war.” He restated a classic tenant of American foreign and national security policy which, again, too many have forgotten: “No one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation.”
This idea has defined the American community, and can do so again. This association is, and will continue to be, part of the struggle to be sure that it does.