‘Economic patriotism’: Rhetorical, not economic, policy

 U.S. President Barack Obama announces new national infrastructure initiative at the Port of Wilmington, Delaware, in front of the I-495 Bridge, which is undergoing substantial structural repairs on July 17, 2014.

Recently, President Obama has been traveling around the country, trying to shift focus back onto the economy. We talked to him about that a few weeks ago, at the White House.

You may have noticed a refrain in some of the president’s most recent speeches. Here is an example from a speech he delivered in Denver: “That’s what makes this country great – a sense of common purpose and patriotism, an economic patriotism.”

President Obama may have cribbed that term from a speech by former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. He was talking about the Republican nominee for president, Mitt Romney.

“Mitt has so little economic patriotism that even his money needs a passport,” Strickland said. “It summers on the beaches of the Cayman Islands, and winters on the slopes of the Swiss Alps.”

Obama used the phrase in a TV ad soon after, and it became the title of the president’s economic plan. So, almost two years later, how does Strickland define “economic patriotism”?

“Companies, corporations, CEOs need to understand that this country has provided them, and continues to provide for them, the means to be successful,” he says.

“Economic patriotism” is more of a rhetorical device than an economic theory. There is no textbook definition. President Obama has used it to talk about infrastructure investment. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew used it in a letter to lawmakers about corporate taxation.

Economic historian Gavin Wright, who teaches at Stanford, suggests “economic patriotism” is a broad brush. It refers to appeals to make economic behavior or economic policy based on “American values.” And, he adds, that has happened throughout history.

“During the Cold War era, I don’t recall hearing the term ‘economic patriotism,’ but it was more or less taken as a given,” Wright says.

In the 1790s, Alexander Hamilton asked the government to support manufacturers. It was an appeal to a special interest group, Wright notes, “but he also thought that this would be essential for the credibility of the American economy, the American nation.”

The phrase “economic patriotism” has been used by Democrats and Republicans, including Pat Buchanan and Amb. John Bohn, who ran the Export-Import Bank during the Reagan era. Bohn defines “economic patriotism” as understanding our economic policy as it compares to the economic policies of other countries.

“We need to have a kind of partnership between the government and the private sector if we are going to maximize our economic growth,” he says.

Over these last few weeks, the phrase has attracted criticism. Wright summarizes one complaint: “There is a market out there, and the market operates and reaches its outcomes, then the government wants to intervene and change that.”

So, Wright says, the debate over the definition of the term “economic patriotism” is really a proxy for a much bigger debate over the role government should play in the economy.

 

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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