Before Obama took office, Americans used the word 'investment' to talk about personal gain. Now we use it to talk about the public good.

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Jeffrey Feldman, Editor-in-Chief
Frameshop, 02/25/2009

A fundamental shift in how Americans understand the word investment since Barack Obama became President was the key factor underlying the political theater of last night.

If there was any doubt how much President Obama has taken hold of that word, redefined it, and re-injected it back into every kitchen table conversation across America--his speech and the weak response of Gov. Jindal (R-LA) put that doubt to rest.

How exactly has the word  'investment' changed and what are the consequences?

Before Obama took office, Americans used the word 'investment' primarily to talk about personal gain, not to talk about the public good. We talked about 'investment accounts,' asked friends if they 'heard about this good investment,' and watched our bank statements to make sure we were getting a 'good rate of return on our investments.'   When we talked or thought about our houses, our hearts quickened and filled with self doubt:  "Have I made a terrible investment?"  When our children open their college admission letters, we hugged them with pride, but then turned to our spouses later that night and said with shame,"I just don't know if we can afford this kind of investment right now."

Without a doubt, the dire situation in the national and global economy will keep those conversations about personal investments going for some time.  But since President Obama took office, a new meaning has eclipsed the old.

While the mainstream media and right-wing pundits obsessed over the word 'stimulus,' President Obama steadily pushed--and passed--an historic piece of legislation with the word 'investment' in the title:  The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

In speech after speech leading up to the passage of the bill, TV talking heads wondered whether or not the bill would succeed in 'stimulating' the economy.  Meanwhile, as that conversation was happening on DC circuit talk shows, Obama talked directly to the American people about the importance of 'investing' in new energy, infrastructure, and education.  And the public heard him.

What the public has seen over the past 8-years of Bush Republican rule are the dangerous consequences that arise when the American people fail to maintain and modernize the systems and resources that we all use.   We saw these failures in the collapse of the levees in New Orleans and the collapse of the bridge in Minneapolis.  Friends and family members died.  The safety and security of such basic acts as driving on a road or sitting in one's home during a rainstorm--safety we took for granted--suddenly filled us with doubt.  So, President Obama spent weeks talking about investing in public works to upgrade and modernize our roads, bridges, and other structures.  And we heard the word 'invest' and we listened.

We also saw that there is something horribly wrong with the role of oil and gas in American life.  We see our children and spouses sent off to fight wars in countries that we know nothing about other than the fact that they supply us with oil.   We see the price of gas at the pump change radically from month to month, causing havoc to our household budgets while the same handful of oil companies reap profits so large we cannot even comprehend them.  So, President Obama spent weeks talking about investing in a new energy economy that will stabilize prices, free us from fighting wars to protect foreign oil fields, and help us generate an energy revenue stream that benefits the whole country, not just a few large conglomerates.  And we heard the word 'invest' and we listened.

We also saw how difficult it has become for our children to get the kind of education that allows them to become the kind of citizens they want and need to be.  We see our children saddled with more and more homework, more and more books, but less and less confidence.  We see our classrooms filled with more and more students, but less and less resources. We hear about the so-called success of the Bush-era school reforms, but we only see the quality of education of our school go down.  We see the price of college tuition push way past the point where anyone can afford it, and yet we see new stadiums and billion dollar endowments become routine. So, President Obama spent weeks talking about investing in better education for the benefit of more capable and more confident American children.  And we heard the word 'invest' and we listened.

We also felt the fear of working hard our entire lives only to be sent into personal bankruptcy by a sudden illness.  We see our wives, husbands, parents and grandparents live every day in fear that they will be forced to choose between health and happiness, that they will be forced to choose between paying for prescriptions and paying for food.  We open insurance claim rejection letters from private companies we have paid out of our paychecks for years--paid on the idea that they would be there for us when we needed them, but now they are spitting in our faces. So, President Obama spent weeks talking about investing in a more affordable and more  modern health care system that would make sure that everybody would have the coverage they need--investing in a system that would finally tackle the fear of getting sick that we live with in this country.  And we heard the word 'invest' and we listened.

Over a period of about a month, while our anxieties at the fate of our private and personal investments mounted, President Obama unrolled a hopeful definition of investment redefined as: expending resources in public projects for the benefit of all.  The word 'investment' defined as a private action was challenged, and ultimately overtaken by the word 'investment' defined as public action. 

When President Obama finally said the following in his speech, last night, he did not need to explain it anymore to the American public, because we were already there with him:

Well that day of reckoning has arrived, and the time to take charge of our future is here.  Now is the time to act boldly and wisely – to not only revive this economy, but to build a new foundation for lasting prosperity.  Now is the time to jump start job creation, re-start lending, and invest in areas like energy, health care, and education that will grow our economy, even as we make hard choices to bring our deficit down.  That is what my economic agenda is designed to do, and that’s what I’d like to talk to you about tonight.  It’s an agenda that begins with jobs.  (link)

Expending resources now for the benefit of the future is the basic idea behind investment. But Obama was not speaking in the context of a new national story.  Whereas decades of Republican ideology had impoverished the idea of investment--demonized anyone who attempted to talk about public rather than private investments--last night a new, larger idea re-emerged.

We have not lost the private definition of investment, but now it sits on a much broader playing field whose parameters are 'our community'  and 'we the people.'

Gov. Jindal's response to President Obama's speech was another demonstration of how this new idea of 'investment'  has changed the debate.

What Jindal tried to do last night was ignore George W. Bush and return to the rhetoric and ideas of Ronald Reagan.  Cutting through the words, the message in Jindal's speech came early on in this passage:

To solve our current problems, Washington must lead. But the way to lead is not to raise taxes and not to just put more money and power in hands of Washington politicians. The way to lead is by empowering you, the American people. Because we believe that Americans can do anything. (link)

The problem here, is that Jindal has failed to understand how Obama has refocused the word 'investment' to the notion of care for the public good.

Jindal criticizes the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act as if it is simply taking away from the private investments of individual citizens--as it if is undermining our personal gain.  That critique, however, is fundamentally out of sync with the experience of millions and millions of Americans.  We have saved, we have worked hard, we have invested in our retirement, paid our insurance bills, kept our cars and homes in good working order, sent our kids to college.  Still, the country we see day-to-day is crumbling around us and only a few, extremely wealthy people seem to benefit to a degree and in a way we never do.  We heard Jindal, in other words, and we thought, "Haven't you been listening to us?  Private investment is not enough!"

Unfortunately, Gov. Jindal's devotion to Republican ideology and his nostalgia for Reagan's rhetoric leads him to conclude that things are bad for Americans because of the actions of government.  But when a bridge collapses or a level breaks, it is not the actions of government that is the cause.  It is the inaction--the neglect.

And there we have it--the parameters of the new debate that have emerged from President Obama's redefining of the word 'investment.'

Rather than talking about 'big government' vs. 'small government' or 'tax cuts' vs. 'tax raises,' we can finally talk about what matters to all of us:  investment or neglect. 

Are we going to continue to neglect the future of our country to the detriment of our health, peace of mind, the well-being of our children?  Or are we going to invest in the health and confidence of all in a more just and inclusive democracy?

For millions of Americans, after just a few short weeks of Barack Obama as President, the question is easy to answer.  Think about how hard it was for so many people to answer this time last year.

Of course, now that President Obama owns the word 'investment,' it is also up to him to make sure that Americans recognize and understand how and when these newly defined investments come to fruition--both in the short and long term.  That is no easy task.  

Next year at this time, it will be interesting to see how well the President has done.

© Jeffrey Feldman 2009, Frameshop

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