Sullivan: Progressive nationalism only way to ‘win the future’

By Brendan Sullivan

Like all the best addresses before it, Tuesday’s State of the Union was filled with equivocal… Like all the best addresses before it, Tuesday’s State of the Union was filled with equivocal rhetoric made to please as many people as possible.

But what made this speech more than just a unity rally was that the spectrum President Barack Obama attempted to stride was not Democratic-Republican. It wasn’t even conservative-liberal. Obama articulated a new direction for bipartisanship this year — from the right he lifted nationalism above conservatism, and from the left, progressivism above liberalism.

His speech even had two taglines. The actual title, “Winning the Future,” is a call to action for Americans to lay down arms among themselves and instead fight against vague foreign enemies who take our jobs and threaten our lives. Obama reiterated variants of this line 11 times over the course of his speech — by the end I was foaming at the mouth in spectacular red, white and blue technicolor.

But beneath his “Winning the Future” nationalism lurked strong progressivism, represented best by his hard line on excessive government bureaucracy and subsidies to oil companies: “It makes no sense, and it has to change.”

His progressivism was strongest in his discussion of infrastructure. High-speed rail, clean energy, renewal of our roads and bridges, and expansion of our digital network are all incredible public works projects that need to be funded if our country intends to stay on top of the global dogpile.

And there it is again — nationalism as reason for progressivism. It is not a new idea. Our two greatest progressive presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, came at times of intense international competition and used those threats as fuel for progressive policy goals. Last week marked the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s “Ask Not” speech.

Obama was right to describe this time in our generation as a “Sputnik moment.” Soviet entry into space was a cold slap in the face of American exceptionalists of the 1950s, those who believed America was destined — perhaps by God — to be the greatest nation on Earth. The recent emergence of China as a new world power is a momentous change in global politics, too. Now we must rally our nationalist dander and fight for that to which we feel entitled: services, safety, liberty and the chance to be the next Horatio Alger.

The speech was long enough and full of enough policy goals that an entire column could be written about any single one. But I believe that the most important idea has received relatively little play in the reactions so far: Obama’s plan to restructure the federal administration. Interestingly enough, it is also a goal that the president, as Chief Administrator, can achieve all by himself.

Federal regulatory code and bureaucratic levels have been painted on top of each previous round of reform without bothering to scrape away at old, chipping and useless levels. The new layer of paint might look very nice, but it disguises instead of changes the faults in the actual structure. Thus, we have a government that is inefficient and bloated. Federal restructuring? It’s about time.

What I personally love about this idea is that it calls out conservatives on the subject of the size of government. We have long heard Republicans cry out for small or limited government. Indeed, even the Republican response given by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin mentioned the phrase limited government three times in less than 10 minutes. But over the past 10 years, Republican representatives and senators have voted over and over again for spending on defense and subsidies for large companies that stifle competition. According to the Department of Defense, defense spending increased by $200 billion over the Bush years — and that’s not including funds for the Iraq and Afghanistan War. It is not small government Republicans want. It is large government that spends — as some political scientists phrase it — on guns before butter.

But Obama doesn’t want that, nor does he want bloated spending on social programs. He pledged to freeze annual domestic spending, make cuts to Medicare and Medicaid and close tax loopholes that allow people and corporations to shirk from — dare I say it — their fair share. What he wants is a government that doesn’t pay five people to do one job — a private company would never allow that. He wants to stop subsidizing industries that make profits off the backs of hardworking Americans and at the expense of the environment. He wants international trade agreements that don’t sacrifice American workers to the false idol of free trade. He wants a tax code that affords a square deal to all, not one that is rigged to help the few over the many.

Why? Because the way we’ve been going, well, I agree with our president — it makes no sense, and it has to stop.

Write Brendan at [email protected].