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Obama's One Exciting Idea: Citizenship

David Callahan

President Obama's speech last week was a disappointment for anyone hoping to hear a bold progressive agenda bristling with big ideas. In fact, it's hard to think of even a single big new idea that Obama proposed. 

In a letter Friday in the New York Times co-signed by 18 progressive leaders, Mark Green and Gary Hart lamented the absence of Democratic imagination:

Among the things that make Democrats exceptional is Franklin D. Roosevelt’s axiom that we pursue “bold, persistent experimentation.” Where are the successors to Social Security and the G.I. Bill to help Democrats both win and govern? What are they for?

Among other ideas: a living wage, a carbon tax, a Mortgage Refinancing Trust agency, progressive tax reform, real immigration reform, filibuster reform, public funding for public elections, universal voter enrollment.

Now, it may be that President Obama does have some bold ideas in mind for his second term, but doesn't see any reason to feed those ideas into the conservative attack machine during this election. President Bush devoted just one sentence to his plan to privatize Social Security in his 2004 convention speech, even though this became his signature domestic policy initiative at the start of his second term. Ronald Reagan barely mentioned tax reform in his 1984 acceptance speech -- but it would be his biggest policy accomplishment of his second term. 

Whatever the case, Obama's speech was not without big thinking. Here, as in his State of the Union address early this year, Obama embraced the idea of mutual obligation and shared destiny. If you aren't paying much attention, this may sound like just more vague rhetoric. But as I discussed here last week, Democrats' focus on the common good -- which we also heard in Bill Clinton's speech -- shows that progressives are taking major strides toward a clearer ideological vision. Moving beyond a laundry list of causes, Obama and other Democrats are stressing how we Americans are all in this together. Yes, individual empowerment matters, said Obama:

But we also believe in something called citizenship — a word at the very heart of our founding, 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 don't think government can solve all our problems. But we don't think that government is the source of all our problems — any more than are welfare recipients, or corporations, or unions, or immigrants, or gays, or any other group we're told to blame for our troubles.

Because we understand that this democracy is ours.

We, the people, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which only asks 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.

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.

Obama stopped just short of quoting John F. Kennedy's famous inaugural phrase: "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country." But he said essentially the same thing. 

In an era where conservatives increasingly embrace self-interest as a moral good and policy dictate, the new progressive focus on the common good provides a clearer choice than ever for American voters.