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The Biggest Idea in Obama's Speech: A Common Good

David Callahan

A perpetual topic of conversation in progressive circles is how we need to boil down our prolix jumble of causes and beliefs to a streamlined vision -- something that can rival the crisp parsimony of the right's credo of "less government, traditional values, and strong defense."

Well, if you listened closely to President Obama's State of the Union address, you actually heard a simple big idea to anchor progressive ideology: Which is that America works best when its citizens put aside individual self-interest to do great things together -- when we elevate the common good. Obama opened his speech by praising "the courage, selflessness, and teamwork of America's armed forces."

At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They're not consumed with personal ambition. They don't obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together. Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example.

He then invoked the collective efforts of the World War II generation that his grandparents were part of: "They understood they were part of something larger; that they were contributing to a story of success that every American had a chance to share."

And here's what Obama said in closing his speech

No one built this country on their own. This Nation is great because we built it together. This Nation is great because we worked as a team. This Nation is great because we get each other's backs. And if we hold fast to that truth, in this moment of trial, there is no challenge too great; no mission too hard.

Obama didn't use the phrase "common good," but this idea helped anchor the speech -- albeit not as strongly it could have. And Obama linked the common good to a social contract frame, calling for "an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules."

(Obama more succinctly fused the common good and social contract ideas in his Kansas speech, in which he said that "we're greater together than we are on our own. I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules.")

Keen students of progressive political philosophy, and the perennial quest for a new progressive "narrative," will recall that one of the strongest contributions along these lines was Michael Tomasky's 2006 article in the American Prospect arguing that the common good was the big idea that progressives were looking for. Tomasky wrote:

For many years -- during their years of dominance and success, the period of the New Deal up through the first part of the Great Society -- the Democrats practiced a brand of liberalism quite different from today's. Yes, it certainly sought to expand both rights and prosperity. But it did something more: That liberalism was built around the idea -- the philosophical principle -- that citizens should be called upon to look beyond their own self-interest and work for a greater common interest.

This, historically, is the moral basis of liberal governance -- not justice, not equality, not rights, not diversity, not government, and not even prosperity or opportunity. Liberal governance is about demanding of citizens that they balance self-interest with common interest. Any rank-and-file liberal is a liberal because she or he somehow or another, through reading or experience or both, came to believe in this principle. And every leading Democrat became a Democrat because on some level, she or he believes this, too....

This is the only justification leaders can make to citizens for liberal governance, really: That all are being asked to contribute to a project larger than themselves.

Tomasky's article got a lot of attention at the time, landing him on the front page of the New York Times. But the progressive opinion elite and political class never rallied behind the common good and it's fair to say that nobody has since come along with an equally grand anchor for progressive philosophy.

Let's hope Obama keeps talking about the common good and fleshes out his thinking. Progressives could use some help on the vision thing. And who better than the President to get everyone on the same page?