Fifty-one years ago President John F. Kennedy delivered his inaugural address containing the thought provoking line, “And so, my fellow Americans – ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” That short speech contains several other rhetorical gems such as, “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” Kennedy declared, “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.” Today, the few who are rich seek to benefit from fear and a lack of negotiation as they seek what their country can do for them.
Foremost among those rich few is the Republican nominee apparent Mitt Romney. In his speech after the marginal New Hampshire primary, Romney castigated President Obama. “He wants to turn America into a European-style entitlement society,” the candidate said. The GOP echo chamber reverberates with variations on the “European-style socialism” theme from television to Twitter. But just because Republicans repeat it does not make it so. The veracity of such rhetoric suffers the problematic flaws of ignorance and inaccuracy.
The ignorance is that most Americans do not know much about Europe other than that its economic situation is in far worse shape than our own. “Associating Obama with Europe links him to the current malaise in Europe, and Americans know it’s a basket case,” according to Rosemary Hollis of London’s City University. “It plays to the stereotypical notion that the USA has about Europe, that they [Europeans] are freeloaders, with no defense capability, and live on welfare [state] benefits.” She also said that Romney is “relying on a history of socialism being viewed as the enemy.” Socialism is the new Communism.
The inaccuracy is that Europe has increased its privatization which has led to a decline of the welfare state, which was a post-WWII idea crafted by the British economist and social reformer William Beveridge. He saw poverty, disease, ignorance, squalor, and idleness as the five “giants on the road to reconstruction.” Beveridge proposed setting up a welfare state with social security, a National Health Service, free education, public housing projects, and full employment as its objectives. The welfare state adopted the ideas of economist John Maynard Keynes, specifically that a government could keep its economy vigorous by increasing public spending. The British Labour government used its U.S. Marshall Plan aid money to get industry going. Then it nationalized the trucking, rail, and coal industries in 1947 and the steel industry in 1951.
The accusation that President Barack Obama is leading the country into any kind of socialist state is as erroneous as making the same accusation about his predecessor, President George W. Bush. Republicans conveniently ignore the fact that under Bush
and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson the government nationalized major banks. The TARP bailout also contained what can be called socialist elements. If Obama deserves a hit, it should be for hiring Republican appointees Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner, whose deregulatory policies of the ‘90s helped create the crisis that required such a government rescue.
Romney has been wrong before. He opposed the automobile industry bailout. “IF (sic) General Motors, Ford and Chrysler get the bailout that their chief executives asked for yesterday, you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye. It won’t go overnight, but its demise will be virtually guaranteed,” he wrote in a 2008 New York Times opinion article. “Without that bailout, Detroit will need to drastically restructure itself. With it, the automakers will stay the course — the suicidal course of declining market shares, insurmountable labor and retiree burdens, technology atrophy, product inferiority and never-ending job losses.” That is not what happened.
The President is not leading the country into a European-style entitlement society, as Mitt Romney pontificates. If anything, President Obama is presiding over an inherited American-style entitlement society that has its origins in FDR’s New Deal, with the Social Security Act, extending through the JFK’s New Frontier and LBJ’s Great Society, with the Civil Rights Act, Medicare and Medicaid. The Republican elites who opposed Democratic Presidents Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Johnson decried them as socialists too.
Anti-European, anti-socialism, anti-Obama rhetoric aside, let’s think about what JFK said, as his niece did last year in the Atlantic. “I almost never hear anything like that call to sacrifice for the good of our country from our leaders today,” Kathleen Kennedy Townsend wrote. “When President Kennedy asked what we could do for our country, he didn’t pretend it would be easy, or painless, or even fair.” John F. Kennedy’s death for his country affirms that.
“So let us begin anew,” said the 35th President, “remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof.” So far, that too is being lost on the wealthy Republican candidates seeking the Presidency. As they sink more deeply into incivility, their sincerity leaves much to be proved.