There were some quite surreal moments when Mr Obama seemed to be channelling Gordon Brown at his most self-congratulatory. Specifically rejecting the notion that America “must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future” (that is, we can afford to support both the old and the young), he said: “For we… understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.” Ah, yes – remember that refrain: we will govern for the many, not the few? Which turned out to be a euphemism for high tax, high-spend economics, galloping entitlements and an epidemic of welfare dependency? Warning to America: it didn’t work out.
Mr Obama made no attempt to explain how support at both these ends of the age range was going to be afforded. Or what effect his insistence that the most expensive entitlement programmes – social security, Medicare and Medicaid – were untouchable would have on the US deficit. Hard economic fact could be countered by ideological passion: “[These entitlements] do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us.” Well, maybe. But they have to be paid for with hard cash – by somebody. Presumably that problem will have to wait for the coming stand-off with Congress over the debt ceiling.
The core message was pounded home relentlessly: American government is now in the redistribution and welfare-provision business, and this is not (contrary to appearances) at variance with the founding fathers’ conception of a nation that is inherently opposed to state interference and domination over the individual. This is the new credo of American nationhood: the government, not the community or the household, will be the moral arbiter of social virtue. The traditional suspicion of the overweening power of the state is now a thing of the past. Democracy is about electing a government that will be there to protect you from hardship, shelter you from the storm and absolve you from sin. Well, no, maybe not that last one – but the concept of the state as moral saviour is not so remote from this, is it?