Last night’s speech by President Obama was not among those seminal, high-minded speeches that he’s known for. The oratory wasn’t soaring, and the themes were considerably more grounded. But two things stuck out for me:
1. Citizenship is more than just self-interest. With rights come responsibilities, which we must share to make a better America and to build the foundation for a better future; and
2. Don’t mock hope.
The Democratic convention was everything the Republicans’ wasn’t. It was well-organized, it saw no sectarian drama, and it was enthusiastic. The Democrats triumphantly trotted out their most recent ex-occupant of the White House; the Republicans didn’t dare. (Indeed, Bill Clinton said more nice things about George W. Bush than any RNC speaker). The only part of the Republican Party that has any enthusiasm is the tea party, and its enthusiasm is inherently negative. Negative in the sense that its entire ethos, such as it is, has to do with reversing the last 100 years’ worth of consumer protections, social safety net, and the other building blocks that make up a first world industrialized nation.
Now, our friends at the Republican convention were more than happy to talk about everything they think is wrong with America, but they didn’t have much to say about how they’d make it right. They want your vote, but they don’t want you to know their plan. And that’s because all they have to offer is the same prescription they’ve had for the last thirty years:
‘‘Have a surplus? Try a tax cut.’’
‘‘Deficit too high? Try another.’’
‘‘Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning!’’
Now, I’ve cut taxes for those who need it— middle-class families and small businesses. But I don’t believe that another round of tax breaks for millionaires will bring good jobs to our shores, or pay down our deficit. I don’t believe that firing teachers or kicking students off financial aid will grow the economy, or help us compete with the scientists and engineers coming out of China. After all that we’ve been through, I don’t believe that rolling back regulations on Wall Street will help the small businesswoman expand, or the laid-off construction worker keep his home. We’ve been there, we’ve tried that, and we’re not going back. We’re moving forward.
You don’t get to be part of the first world if you don’t feed the hungry, treat the sick, and help the needy. He brought our social contract as Americans back into play – a direct assault on the Randian “every man for himself” mindset that the right has begun to espouse.
The DNC brought about a triad of speeches building up to last night. Michelle Obama’s speech contrasted her family’s story with that of Mitt Romney. Bill Clinton’s speech was an incredible upload of Democratic arguments.
– Bill Clinton explained that, since 1961, Democrats are twice as good at creating jobs than Republicans. True.
– Clinton argued that Romney’s plan to cut taxes on the richest Americans would increase the deficit and obliterate the budgets for national parks, clean air, clean water, and education. True.
– Clinton said that the Republicans quadrupled the national debt under Reagan and Bush Sr., and doubled it again under W. Bush. True.
– Clinton asserted that the Obama economy has created 4.5 million private-sector jobs in the last 29 months. True.
The takeaway from President Obama’s speech was shared responsibility, shared sacrifice, citizenship. Hope. Future. Forward. He has a duty to explain why everything hasn’t already turned around from the 2008 free-fall. I think he did that, with President Clinton’s help. He looked forward – restoring domestic manufacturing, reworking how we produce and consume energy to be less dependent on foreign oil, improving education, “nation-building” here at home, he called it.
If we can spend a trillion dollars to build Iraq, we can do at least that here.
The RNC spent a few days mocking hope and change – making fun of the President for not “delivering”, (whatever that means), and all but mocking people who believed in it in the first place. The RNC ignored the fact that the mess we’re still not completely out of, is one which they brought about through their failed policies.
But even if you’re a Republican and disagree with Obama – is it really smart to denigrate the notion of “hope”? The RNC kept saying America was in decline – an assertion that any self-respecting national politician would never make. Well, if we’re in “decline”, wouldn’t change be a good thing? Their whole argument is flimsy nonsense.
One of the big themes in this election is going to be Republicans reassuring businesses that “you built that”. To counter that, Obama last night struck a theme of you (collectively, America) did this. You don’t bring about change by giving up.
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, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.
So you see, the election four years ago wasn’t about me. It was about you. My fellow citizens— you were the change.
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. You did that.
You’re the reason a young man in Colorado who never thought he’d be able to afford his dream of earning a medical degree is about to get that chance. You made that possible.
You’re the reason a young immigrant who grew up here and went to school here and pledged allegiance to our flag will no longer be deported from the only country she’s ever called home; why selfless soldiers won’t be kicked out of the military because of who they are or who they love; why thousands of families have finally been able to say to the loved ones who served us so bravely: ‘‘Welcome home.’’
If you turn away now— if you buy into the cynicism that the change we fought for isn’t possible. well, change will not happen. If you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference, then other voices will fill the void: lobbyists and special interests; the people with the $10 million checks who are trying to buy this election and those who are making it harder for you to vote; Washington politicians who want to decide who you can marry, or control health care choices that women should make for themselves.
Only you can make sure that doesn’t happen. Only you have the power to move us forward.
Government and policies are what you make of them, as citizens. The choice has become quite stark, as the corporatist reactionist policies of the opposition becomes more and more expressly hostile to the interests of average Americans.
It was a subdued speech that finished strong, and if the theme of citizenship wasn’t getting through to you, the closing song was Bruce Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own”.
The reasons why I support this President are myriad – I support expanding and improving education so that we can compete with Europe and China. I support reducing our dependence not only on foreign oil, but also expanding our use of alternative energy so that we lay the foundation for future sustainability of our energy needs. I support a foreign policy that is less bellicose and more rational. I support expanding medical insurance to all Americans. I support equal rights for LGBT Americans, and marriage equality. I support re-working our immigration laws so that law-abiding undocumented workers have a path to citizenship, so that we have a proper guest worker program for certain industries, and so that we get better at attracting and keeping skilled, educated immigrants we’ve always welcomed. I support clean water, clean air, and not befouling our environment. I reject the idea that people who choose not to “believe” in objective scientific fact can somehow dictate what the rest of us do, believe, or teach our kids.
But as I stand here tonight, I have never been more hopeful about America. Not because I think I have all the answers. Not because I’m naïve about the magnitude of our challenges.
I’m hopeful because of you.
The young woman I met at a science fair who won national recognition for her biology research while living with her family at a homeless shelter— she gives me hope.
The auto worker who won the lottery after his plant almost closed, but kept coming to work every day, and bought flags for his whole town and one of the cars that he built to surprise his wife— he gives me hope.
The family business in Warroad, Minn., that didn’t lay off a single one of their four thousand employees during this recession, even when their competitors shut down dozens of plants, even when it meant the owners gave up some perks and pay— because they understood their biggest asset was the community and the workers who helped build that business— they give me hope.
And I think about the young sailor I met at Walter Reed hospital, still recovering from a grenade attack that would cause him to have his leg amputated above the knee. Six months ago, I would watch him walk into a White House dinner honoring those who served in Iraq, tall and 20 pounds heavier, dashing in his uniform, with a big grin on his face; sturdy on his new leg. And I remember how a few months after that I would watch him on a bicycle, racing with his fellow wounded warriors on a sparkling spring day, inspiring other heroes who had just begun the hard path he had traveled.
He gives me hope.
I don’t know what party these men and women belong to. I don’t know if they’ll vote for me. But I know that their spirit defines us. They remind me, in the words of scripture, that ours is a ‘‘future filled with hope.’’
And if you share that faith with me— if you share that hope with me— I ask you tonight for your vote.
If you reject the notion that this nation’s promise is reserved for the few, your voice must be heard in this election.
If you reject the notion that our government is forever beholden to the highest bidder, you need to stand up in this election.
If you believe that new plants and factories can dot our landscape; that new energy can power our future; that new schools can provide ladders of opportunity to this nation of dreamers; if you believe in a country where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules, then I need you to vote this November.
America, I never said this journey would be easy, and I won’t promise that now. Yes, our path is harder— but it leads to a better place. Yes our road is longer— but we travel it together. We don’t turn back. We leave no one behind. We pull each other up. We draw strength from our victories, and we learn from our mistakes, but we keep our eyes fixed on that distant horizon, knowing that providence is with us, and that we are surely blessed to be citizens of the greatest nation on earth.
The choice this year is even clearer than it was in 2004 or 2008. In retrospect, the 2000 election was the most important in recent memory. Now that the wars it brought about are winding down, the 2012 election sets the stage for a crucial debate about the direction of our economy, our government – our very civilization. We don’t fix what’s broken, educate kids, clean up the environment, move forward with energy, strengthen Social Security and Medicare, and lift citizens up by drowning the federal government in the bathtub.
I didn’t need Obama’s DNC acceptance speech to help make up my mind to vote for him, but it was good to be reminded of the reasons why.