(Deerlodge National Forest, Montana) In his presidential campaign, candidate Barack Obama made remarkable commitments to active citizenship, civic renewal, and civic education. Here is a compendium of his statements that we can use to inspire ourselves–and to hold the president accountable for his promises. The source of these quotations is the remarkable Project Vote Smart database, which includes transcripts of thousands of candidates’ speeches and releases.
02/10/2007 Springfield, Illinois, Remarks by Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) Announcing his Candidacy for President of the United States:
“And after a time, I came to understand that our cherished rights of liberty and equality depend on the active participation of an awakened electorate. (Cheers.)” …
That’s why this campaign can’t only be about me. It must be about us. It must be about what we can do together. This campaign must be the occasion, the vehicle of your hopes and your dreams. It will take your time, your energy and your advice to push us forward when we’re doing right and let us know when we’re not.
This campaign has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, restoring our sense of common purpose, and realizing that few obstacles can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change. (Cheers.) …
That is our purpose here today. That is why I’m in this race, not just to hold an office but to gather with you to transform a nation. (Cheers.) …
I want us to take up the unfinished business of perfecting our Union and building a better America. (Cheers.) And if you will join with me in this improbable quest, if you feel destiny calling and see, as I see, the future of endless possibilities stretching out before us, if you sense, as I sense, that the time is now to shake off our slumber and slough off our fears and make good on the debt we owe past and future generations, then I am ready to take up the cause and march with you and work with you. (Cheers.) Today, together, we can finish the work that needs to be done and usher in a new birth of freedom on this earth. …
Thank you very much, everybody. Let’s get to work. (Cheers.)”
3/19/2007 CNN, Larry King Live, answering a question about Michelle Obama:
“She’s very interested in getting young people involved civically. She ran one of these AmeriCorps programs, called “Public Allies” in Chicago that helped young people connect with public service work and get leadership training. And so, she’s really big on encouraging people to get involved in their communities. And I think that’s something that she would be likely to continue if she were in the White House.
12/05/2007, Mt. Vernon, IA “Obama Issues Call to Serve, Vows to Make National Service Important Cause of His Presidency”
From the campaign press release: “Senator Barack Obama today issued a “Call to Serve” and detailed his commitment to making national service an important cause of his presidency in a major policy address at Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa.
In his campaign, Obama has enlisted hundreds of thousands of Americans to join him in working for change that America can believe in. As President, Obama will increase opportunities for Americans of all ages to serve their country. In his remarks, Obama discussed his personal experience in public service, as well as his plan to call on Americans from all walks of life to serve and to build an architecture that focuses their service toward achieving leading national goals.Today, it’s easy for us to get caught thinking that there are two different stories at work in our lives. There is the story of our day to day cares and responsibilities. And there is the story of what’s happening in the wider world – a story viewed through headlines and websites, a destiny to be shaped by forces beyond our control. …
I am here today to ask you to reject this notion, and to invite you to take hold of the future of your country. Because your own story and the American story are not separate – they are shared. And they will both be enriched if we stand up together, and answer a new call to service to meet the challenges of our new century. ….
[as a community organizer] I found that you could do your part to see that – in the words of Dr. King – it “bends toward justice.” In church basements and around kitchen tables, block by block, we brought the community together, registered new voters, fought for new jobs, and helped people live lives with some measure of dignity.
Eventually, I realized I wasn’t just helping other people. Through service, I found a community that embraced me; a church to belong to; citizenship that was meaningful; the direction I’d been seeking. Through service, I found that my own improbable story fit into a larger American story.”
From a transcript: “I have no doubt that in the face of impossible odds people who love their country can change it. But I hold no illusions that one man or woman can do this alone. That’s why my campaign has called nearly 400,000 Americans to a common purpose. That’s why I’m reaching out to Democrats, and also to Independents and Republicans. And that is why I won’t just ask for your vote as a candidate; I will ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am President of the United States. This will not be a call issued in one speech or program; this will be a cause of my presidency.”
06/30/2008, Independence, MO, Remarks of Senator Barack Obama:
“In spite of this absence of leadership from Washington, I have seen a new generation of Americans begin to take up the call. I meet them everywhere I go, young people involved in the project of American renewal; not only those who have signed up to fight for our country in distant lands, but those who are fighting for a better America here at home, by teaching in underserved schools, or caring for the sick in understaffed hospitals, or promoting more sustainable energy policies in their local communities.
I believe one of the tasks of the next Administration is to ensure that this movement towards service grows and sustains itself in the years to come. We should expand AmeriCorps and grow the Peace Corps. We should encourage national service by making it part of the requirement for a new college assistance program, even as we strengthen the benefits for those whose sense of duty has already led them to serve in our military.
We must remember, though, that true patriotism cannot be forced or legislated with a mere set of government programs. Instead, it must reside in the hearts of our people, and cultivated in the heart of our culture, and nurtured in the hearts of our children.
As we begin our fourth century as a nation, it is easy to take the extraordinary nature of America for granted. But it is our responsibility as Americans and as parents to instill that history in our children, both at home and at school. The loss of quality civic education from so many of our classrooms has left too many young Americans without the most basic knowledge of who our forefathers are, or what they did, or the significance of the founding documents that bear their names. Too many children are ignorant of the sheer effort, the risks and sacrifices made by previous generations, to ensure that this country survived war and depression; through the great struggles for civil, and social, and worker’s rights.
It is up to us, then, to teach them. It is up to us to teach them that even though we have faced great challenges and made our share of mistakes, we have always been able to come together and make this nation stronger, and more prosperous, and more united, and more just. It is up to us to teach them that America has been a force for good in the world, and that other nations and other people have looked to us as the last, best hope of Earth. It is up to us to teach them that it is good to give back to one’s community; that it is honorable to serve in the military; that it is vital to participate in our democracy and make our voices heard.
And it is up to us to teach our children a lesson that those of us in politics too often forget: that patriotism involves not only defending this country against external threat, but also working constantly to make America a better place for future generations.”
09/12/2008 New York, NY:
“Every American can give back to their communities and help their fellow citizens through service,” said Senator Obama. “Many Americans serve their nation through military service. Others serve by volunteering in schools, shelters, churches, hospitals, and disaster relief efforts. Still more are firefighters, teachers, or police officers. As a young man, I served as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, where I learned ways to create opportunities for other people to achieve their dreams. Our nation faces serious challenges in its neighborhoods and schools, and we must empower Americans with the resources they need to give back and improve their communities. I am proud to support this legislation and I commend Chairman Kennedy for his continued leadership in opening doors for public service opportunities.”
04/29/2009 Town Hall Meeting, Arnold, MO:
“We’re living through extraordinary times. We didn’t ask for all the challenges that we face, but we’re determined to answer the call to meet them. That’s the spirit I see everywhere I go. That’s the spirit we need to sustain, because the answer to our problems will ultimately be found in the character of the American people. We need soldiers and diplomats, scientists, teachers, workers, entrepreneurs. We need your service. We need your active citizenship.”
01/21/2009 Remarks by the President in Welcoming Senior Staff and Cabinet Secretaries to the White House:
“Our commitment to openness means more than simply informing the American people about how decisions are made. It means recognizing that government does not have all the answers, and that public officials need to draw on what citizens know. And that’s why, as of today, I’m directing members of my administration to find new ways of tapping the knowledge and experience of ordinary Americans — scientists and civic leaders, educators and entrepreneurs — because the way to solve the problem of our time is — the way to solve the problems of our time, as one nation, is by involving the American people in shaping the policies that affect their lives.”