Iris responded to my post on the President’s address at the Democratic convention, underscoring that citizenship was the central theme of Obama’s speech at the Democratic Convention. Although I didn’t emphasize this, I agree and want to expand upon her point today by highlighting the president’s words and adding a few reflections. The citizenship theme, the way it was presented and imagined, not only tied the Democratic Convention itself together. It promises to make coherent the Obama campaign and contribute to the possibility of a transformational second term of the President Obama, as Andrew Sullivan explores in his Daily Beast essay today. It also has provided a way to read the day to day events of the campaign, such as the joint appearances of Romney and Obama on last night’s Sixty Minutes.
As I have emphasized, the way the president presented himself, his serious demeanor and mode of address was as important as the content of his address. Non-verbal communication mattered. But so did the verbal. The President told a simple story with a beginning and a middle, inviting his audience to write the end. Vote. Stay active. Engage in citizenship responsibilities to your fellow citizens and country. It’s all there in his words.
He told a personal story:
Now, the first time I addressed this convention in 2004, I was a younger man, a Senate candidate from Illinois, who spoke about hope — not blind optimism, not wishful thinking, but hope in the face of difficulty; hope in the face of uncertainty; that dogged faith in the future which has pushed this nation forward, even when the odds are great, even when the road is long.
But the personal had a political – public message:
Eight years later, that hope has been tested by the cost of war, by one of the worst economic crises in history, and by political gridlock that’s left us wondering whether it’s still even possible to tackle the challenges of our time.
He wanted his audience to see the big picture. He counseled them “to keep the eye on the prize”:
I know campaigns can seem small, even silly sometimes. Trivial things become big distractions. Serious issues become sound bites. The truth gets buried under an avalanche of money and advertising. If you’re sick of hearing me approve this message, believe me, so am I.
He comically criticized his Republican opposition:
Now, our friends down in Tampa 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. (Applause.) 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 prescriptions they’ve had for the last 30 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.
But the joke was serious. They were proposing solutions that caused many of the problems that the country faces.
Over and over, we’ve been told by our opponents that bigger tax cuts and fewer regulations are the only way — that since government can’t do everything, it should do almost nothing. If you can’t afford health insurance, hope that you don’t get sick. If a company releases toxic pollution into the air your children breathe, well, that’s the price of progress. If you can’t afford to start a business or go to college, take my opponent’s advice and borrow money from your parents. (Laughter and applause.) As Americans, we believe we are endowed by our Creator with certain, inalienable rights — rights that no man or government can take away. We insist on personal responsibility and we celebrate individual initiative. We’re not entitled to success — we have to earn it. We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk-takers, the entrepreneurs who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system, the greatest engine of growth and prosperity that the world’s ever known.
Yet more is necessary. America is a country of striving individuals, but also people with connections, commitments and responsibilities:
But we also believe in something called citizenship. (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. (Applause.) We believe that when a family can no longer be tricked into signing a mortgage they can’t afford, that family is protected, but so is the value of other people’s homes 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, and it is in our power to give her that chance. (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, through the hard and frustrating, but necessary work of self-government. That’s what we believe. (Applause.)
So, you see, the election four years ago wasn’t about me. It was about you. (Applause.) My fellow citizens, you were the change. (Applause.)
He went on to highlight the major accomplishments of his first term in highly personal terms, linked with citizenship.
You’re the reason there’s a little girl with a heart disorder in Phoenix who will 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.
… 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.” “Welcome home.” You did that. You did that. You did that.
He returned then to his story, emphasizing citizenship responsibility:
I recognize that times have changed since I first spoke to this convention. The times have changed, and so have I. I’m no longer just a candidate. I’m the President. (Applause.)
And that means I know what it means to send young Americans into battle, for I have held in my arms the mothers and fathers of those who didn’t return. I’ve shared the pain of families who’ve lost their homes, and the frustration of workers who’ve lost their jobs.
If the critics are right that I’ve made all my decisions based on polls, then I must not be very good at reading them. (Laughter.) And while I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved together, I’m far more mindful of my own failings, knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said, “I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.” (Applause.)
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. (Applause.)
The autoworker 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. (Applause.)
The family business in Warroad, Minnesota, that didn’t lay off a single one of their 4,000 employees when the recession hit, even when their competitors shut down dozens of plants, even when it meant the owner gave up some perks and some pay because they understood that their biggest asset was the community and the workers who had helped build that business — they give me hope. (Applause.)
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, we 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. He gives me hope. (Applause.)
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. (Applause.) 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.
Thus, when Governor Romney criticized the forty-seven percent, Obama’s response was not simply situational and tactical, it was part of the citizenship story he told at the convention and has been telling, in fact, since he first became visible to the nation in his keynote address to the Democratic Convention of 2004.
His criticism of the Romney – Ryan plan for Medicare and healthcare reform also is part of the coherent story, not ad hoc. The same is true of his foreign policy. His sober appraisal of economic and geopolitical progress, with significant challenges ahead, informs his response to the good and bad daily news, as it is clearly built upon the tough words of President Clinton at the convention.
Obama’s appeal, the American ideal as an ideal of citizenship, individualism properly understood, as Tocqueville put it, not the naked individualism of the Republicans, informs the conduct of his campaign, including the advertising that he knows often seems silly. But it also has informed his sober actions as he has governed and hopes to continue to govern for four more years, with promise for greater success. If the citizenry supports the narrative, it is more likely Obama will win the election and have coattails, as is apparently now happening in Senate and House races. The narrative presented in the convention may also, I think likely will, constrain the opposition to his policies, as his second term begins.
The “Storyteller-in-Chief” added another chapter to “The American Story,” this time as he accepted his party’s nomination for a second term of President of the United States.