Obama on Citizenship in Charlotte, revisited

In the peroration of his Charlotte speech, the President spoke forcefully about citizenship. Because that topic is my life’s concern–and because I have such high regard for Obama’s pre-presidential work on citizenship–I gave the speech a critical review. I implied that he had said too little, too late. But half my Facebook friends quoted that section with great enthusiasm. And the next night in a pizza restaurant, I heard strangers talking about citizenship excitedly. So it is quite possible that the speech resonated with Americans. On my own second reading, I would agree that phrases like this one were pretty good: “As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together — (cheers, applause) — through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.”

The “self-governance” theme was, however, lost on the punditocracy, who always view talk of citizenship as an empty politician’s cliché, like saying that you are excited to be back in Tar Heel Country with such a wonderful crowd. Obama talked about citizenship from the day he announced his candidacy until Election Night, 2008, and he never got much coverage for it. (See my collection of his citizenship quotes, very few of which were covered by the press.)

Last week, again, opinion writers simply ignored the citizenship part of the President’s speech. The few mentions were dismissive. Ron Fournier in the Atlantic cited a sentence about citizenship as an example of how prosaic Obama had been, calling it “a chestnut channeling both Abe Lincoln and John F. Kennedy.” Timothy Noah wrote in The New Republic:

The malaise echo was also audible in Obama’s repetition of his 2008 theme, “You’re the change.” I don’t mind being the change if the change is the legislative triumph that was passage of the Affordable Care Act—and, to his credit, Obama did say, “You’re the reason there’s a little girl with a heart disorder in Phoenix who’ll get the surgery she needs because an insurance company can’t limit her coverage.” I’m also the reason, Obama said, that a young man can get his medical degree (I guess because of Obama’s student-loan policy, though he didn’t really make that clear) and that a young immigrant won’t be deported (thanks to a recent policy shift by the department of homeland security), and that there’s no more Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and that there’s no more Iraq war. I’m happy to share the credit for all that. But I don’t like being the change if that means I’m responsible for the continuing drop in median income, or persistent unemployment, or Obama’s own subdued state of mind.

Noah assumes that the only way he can exercise citizenship is to vote for Democrats, who will then use their power over the national government to solve problems for us. In other words, Noah is not interested in being much of a citizen. He continues:

“I’m hopeful because of you,” Obama said at the end of his speech. He then recited a litany of inspiring examples of people showing grit under various kinds of adversity. But yikes, who wants that responsibility? What if I’m feeling grumpy (as I became, for instance, while listening to this speech)? I need a president who can cheer me up, not a president who needs me to cheer him up. The president can’t afford to outsource his optimism.

Noah’s reaction is characteristic of the national press corps, and it goes a long way to explaining our predicament. Obama believes that you can’t advance progressive goals if people distrust government, and they won’t trust it until they can participate in it and control it. (See my defense of that theory in The Democratic Strategist.) The President has not actually increased public engagement in government, and that is a failure. One reason for his failure is that liberal opinion-makers and policy-makers almost universally ignore or disagree with his basic theory. The only good news is that quite a few American citizens  share it.

[PS: I am sure there are exceptions: writers who do understand the citizenship theme. Harold Meyerson may be one. I welcome other links.]

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.