Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Big Picture: Obama's Notre Dame Speech, Part I

This is the first part of my analysis of Obama's speech on Sunday at Notre Dame, which we once again urge everyone to watch. Part II will be coming tomorrow.

Most of the discussion of Barack Obama's commencement address at Notre Dame on Sunday has focused on the skillful and "quintessentially Obama" way he addressed the hot-button issue of abortion by calling for "fair-minded words" and a mentality and goals that seek common ground rather than polarization. If this speech were only to set us on the path to reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies and taking better care of pregnant mothers, it would be an impressive enough accomplishment. But I hope that we will look back on Obama's speech as something even more consequential: a key moment in an across-the-board leftward shift in the politics of religion and of religious people. I think that the political context, the venue, the messenger, and both the style and substance of the message were almost perfectly calibrated to accomplish the mirror-image goals of disarming culture-wars-based opposition to Obama's agenda while pulling in many of those same "values voters" as allies and even foot soldiers for his agenda.

The context for Obama's "speech to the religious" is that, on the whole, religious voters pull the country rightward. Religious voters are underrepresented among liberal activists, among rank-and-file Democrats, and even among liberal-leaning independents, while they are overrepresented among rank-and-file Republicans, conservative activists, and the politically apathetic. The biggest thing holding liberalism and the Democratic Party back in recent decades has been the sense that its leaders, its spokesmen, areculturally elitist, think they're smarter and more modern and cooler, are indifferent or even hostile to religion and moral values. This led to a bunch of frankly pathetic attempts by candidates like Gore and Kerry to show how "in touch" they were, which only made them look phony. If a prominent liberal/Democrat - and no one is more prominent than the most famous man on the planet - could convincingly, authentically show that he didn't just give lip service to the role of faith and morality and values in guiding his worldview and his policies, but that those things are at the very core of the liberal agenda, than he could begin to shift religious voters leftward. Polls and anecdotal evidence back up the working assumption of Obama and his top political adviser David Axelrod that the strongest force pulling independents and conservatives rightward is not economic conservatism - i.e small government, pro-tax-cuts, anti-regulation, anti-environmentalism, anti-workers' protection, but social conservatism - which goes beyond issues like abortion and gay marriage to include a basic worldview, a perception of the relative morality of the two parties. The Republican Party and conservatism have so discredited themselves among moderate and even some conservative voters - and currently none of their spokesmen demonstrate any ability to connect on religious issues - that all liberals need to do is disarm any fears these voters have that we look down on their faith and how that they are welcome in our party and our critical to the success of our agenda. In short, polling and analysis show that people are already prone to support the core elements of the Obama agenda - reform and reinvestment in health care, energy, and the environment - that we just need to convince people that liberalism is "safe" on religion and morality.

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