Michelle Obama And American Values

Listening to Michelle Obama's speech at the DNC last night, two passages that ran high on the applause meter are powerful reminders of the basic values that Americans want to believe in: First Lady Michelle Obama speaks during the opening night of the Democratic National Convention at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina Tuesday September 4, 2012. (Photo by Jared Soares for PBS NewsHour)

Barack and I were both raised by families who didn’t have much in the way of money or material possessions but who had given us something far more valuable – their unconditional love, their unflinching sacrifice, and the chance to go places they had never imagined for themselves.

Talking about the commitment and hard work exemplified by those who raised them, Mrs. Obama made the point that for her and her husband, the issues of economic opportunity facing the country "are not political, they are personal."

Like so many American families, our families weren’t asking for much. They didn’t begrudge anyone else’s success or care that others had much more than they did…in fact, they admired it. They simply believed in that fundamental American promise that, even if you don’t start out with much, if you work hard and do what you’re supposed to do, then you should be able to build a decent life for yourself and an even better life for your kids and grandkids.

A good summary of the values inherent in the above words, and in the rest of Mrs. Obama's speech might look like the following:

  • SELF-IMPROVEMENT: The United States has historically been a nation of self-improvers where those who make the effort to invest in their own future – especially through education – garner rewards for doing so. 
  • HARD WORK: The ability to work hard is to be fundementally respected. Those who work hard should be rewarded with a decent standard of living and opportunities for advancement.
  • SACRIFICE: Sacrificing today for a brighter future tomorrow is a key ingredient of American success.
  • FAMILY: Strong families are the backbone of America.
As critics and pundits deconstruct Mrs. Obama's words, she seems to be getting high marks for connecting these core beliefs to her husband's policy decisions and priorities. Those looking back over the past four years of policy action may beg to differ. It is not always easy to translate words into workable solutions. In that vein, a new report written by my Demos' colleagues, called Millions to the Middle, is well worth a read for its ability to connect these core American values to pragmatic policy action. When all of the campaign speeches are done, the country will still need a path forward. This report outlines one.