Obama on Citizenship in Charlotte

Barack Obama began his career as an advanced thinker about citizenship. He was not only a community organizer but a theorist of community organizing, a member of Robert Putnam’s “Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America,” and an eloquent defender of the idea that voluntary public work is an essential solution to our most serious problems. He made that case particularly strongly, and to strong applause, during the 2008 election, saying at one point that “service and … active citizenship … will be a central cause of my presidency.” (See a full list of his commitments to active citizenship here.)

But once Obama entered the White House, the citizenship theme was lost. It was lost in rhetoric as the President began to talk about “I” instead of “we.” More important, it was lost in substance. With the exception of expanding AmeriCorps, the administration did little to strengthen the role of citizens in governance and in rebuilding America. It offered nothing comparable to the WPA or CCC of the New Deal. On the contrary, deep and long-lasting trends of civic dis-empowerment continued. Juries are disappearing from criminal justice;  education is governed by tests, not by citizens discussing priorities. I don’t mainly blame the president for these trends because I think the organizations and individuals concerned with active citizenship–including myself–have been ineffective. But I do think the lack of a tangible connection between citizens and government has been at the core of Obama’s struggles.

Last night, in Charlotte, the president forcefully reintroduced the citizenship theme. I will end with that section of the speech so that you can judge it for yourself. In my view, it was helpful but far from sufficient. Given how most people envision “good citizenship” today, these paragraphs are consistent with a very thin theory. They could imply that good citizens care enough about other people to vote for fair economic policies (i.e., for Democrats over Republicans), and also care for the children, employees, and other vulnerable people around them. Missing is any sense that we can collectively govern the country and rebuild it.

But we also believe in something called citizenship — (cheers, applause) — citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations.

We believe that when a CEO pays his autoworkers enough to buy the cars that they build, the whole company does better. (Cheers, applause.)

We believe that when a family can no longer be tricked into signing a mortgage they can’t afford, that family’s protected, but so is the value of other people’s homes — (cheers, applause) — and so is the entire economy. (Applause.)

We believe the little girl who’s offered an escape from poverty by a great teacher or a grant for college could become the next Steve Jobs or the scientist who cures cancer or the president of the United States — (cheers, applause) — and it is in our power to give her that chance. (Cheers, applause.)

We know that churches and charities can often make more of a difference than a poverty program alone. We don’t want handouts for people who refuse to help themselves, and we certainly don’t want bailouts for banks that break the rules. (Cheers, applause.)

We don’t think the government can solve all of our problems, but we don’t think the government is the source of all of our problems — (cheers, applause) — any more than our welfare recipients or corporations or unions or immigrants or gays or any other group we’re told to blame for our troubles — (cheers, applause) — because — because America, we understand that this democracy is ours.

We, the people — (cheers) — recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only, what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense. (Cheers, applause.)

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. That’s what we believe.

So you see, the election four years ago wasn’t about me. It was about you. (Cheers, applause.) My fellow citizens — you were the change. (Cheers, applause.)

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.
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