From The Presidential Debate of October 16, 2012 AHA Roundtable, a Perspectives Online extra from the October 2012 issue of Perspectives on History

The "I" Word

Daniel Rodgers, October 2012

The “j” word, jobs, was the dominant term in the evening’s debate:  how best to encourage their growth and keep them at home.  But the more striking word, from the historian’s perspective, was “I.”  It was everywhere in the debates.  “I know how to make jobs happen,” Romney repeated insistently; and he worked hard to leave the impression that, by force of will, he would do it.  There were more references to “we” in Obama’s remarks, but the big “We” of 2008, with its social movement overtones, was nowhere to be found.  Structures of politics, economy, and society loomed behind every one of the answers these two figures offered, standing alone with their microphones.  But except for brief interruptive movements, you would barely know it, and in the modern personalization of politics both men did their best to make sure you didn’t notice.

One of the most prominent silences was any gesture at all toward the dynamics of the macroeconomy.  The nation is in the midst of a deep and drawn-out business cycle, but neither candidate suggested that this is the way financial panics work or that are limits to the ability of government economic policy to control their consequences.  You waited for either candidate to put his finger in the air and draw a graph of economic values over time.  There was no shortage of contesting data points, to be sure.  But the time and sequence relationships that might make the figures understandable were almost impossible to find.  One felt not only the marginalization of mid-20th century Keynesian economic theory, but that very riddle of cyclicalism in modern capitalist economies that Keynes tried to solve had somehow evaporated from discussion. 

If the macroeconomy was unmentionable in the night’s debate, political party was barely more visible.  An observer from another planet would have had an exceedingly difficult time perceiving that either of these men was running as the heads of political parties over which they would have, at best, only partial control.  It is understandable that Romney should now be trying to put daylight between himself an unpopular Republican Party leadership.  But Obama gave no shout-out to his fellow Democrats and only rarely aimed one of his zingers at the Republican congressional leadership.  The “I” illusion flourished here too, as if either of these to two men, by himself, free of the pressures and structure of the political system, could make these promises happen. The iron triangles, veto groups, and strategic voting blocs that political historians routinely explain to their students--and that came back to bite the Obama administration so badly in the health insurance reform debates--went almost unacknowledged. 

There were somewhat more gestures toward society than there were toward the structures of the economy or of politics.  Both candidates spoke sincerely of their concerns with cultures of violence.  They lauded the contributions of immigrants, however much they differed on immigration policy. But individual opportunity was their core motif. More chances to get a good education. More chances to get a good job and start a small business. One by one, both men promised, we would get out of this mess.  When Candy Crowley asked, at the very end, why anyone should assume that jobs would come rushing back from the low wage regions of the world to the high-wage United States, the structuralist question seemed, somehow, a rude intrusion. 

Debates have not always turned this sharply on the “I” word. One thinks of Harry Truman’s crusade against the conservative bloc in Congress. One thinks of Franklin Roosevelt’s rhetoric of economic interdependence. One thinks of the ways in which the “social” permeated the language of early twentieth century Progressives. But now, in a much more complex world than the Progressives inhabited, our political language, as it was on display at Hofstra, seemed to have shriveled down to competing “I”s. 

Daniel T. Rodgers is Henry Charles Lea Professor of History at Princeton University. His most recent book, Age of Fracture, was co-winner of the Bancroft Prize for 2012.