By Jesse Last
Sunday afternoon, I found myself inspired by Hillary Clinton. It was not what she said in her speech – as usual, her mastery of policy impressed me – but rather how she connected with me. She explained that making change in this country is a task that no single person, even the President, can accomplish alone. Instead, she argued, it will demand the hard work of individual citizens. She stated that while she would promote clean energy, she would also ask us to conserve. While she would work to improve our schools, we as parents would need to read to our children and support their study. And while she would push for Universal Healthcare, she would want us to take more responsibility for keeping healthy. I felt respected, challenged and above all involved.
In short, Hillary took Obama’s message of change and emphasized the small, but hugely important, individual contributions we must make in transforming America. This co-opting of his rhetoric is serious business, at least for me as an Obama supporter. When I consider what initially drew me to Obama, it was his proposed *process* of change as well as the change itself. He seemed ready to set aside partisanship in serving the greater good, and he asked that I and all other Americans regardless of race, gender, and political affiliation join one another in doing the same.
Recently, he seems to have turned up the “change” volume but neglected the “individual contribution” sound, and now his message feels slightly out of tune. When I watch him speak on television, I see the crowd cheer with an incredible fervor. And there is nothing inherently wrong with such passion – friends who have heard him speak attest to the enthusiasm he generates. I just wish I did not feel as though I were watching a rally bordering on a revival. We need soaring rhetoric in a world of depressed resignation, but such rhetoric should be filled with content. I want to hear more about his proposals (I know he has them, I’ve checked!) Even more than policy, I want to hear more of his original humility, more of his reaching out to me, asking me to not only support him but to support the incredible work that is confronting global warming, restoring the country’s security and standing in the world, and improving our economy.
I’m pretty young – sadly, I never got to see John F. Kennedy speak. But I have read his quotes and even watched recordings of several of his speeches. And no matter how many times I hear it repeated, Kennedy’s appeal to my better self still gives me shivers: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man. Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”
I think our country is ready for this message of strength and sacrifice again. During the last eight years, very little has been asked of many of us, while too much has been asked of a few. While our soldiers have died or returned scarred by war, the President has encouraged those at home to continue in self-indulgent spending. And I think we have; I think I have. We have consumed more than we can afford and now find ourselves in debt. We have let the terrorists terrify us and our government take away fundamental freedoms and civil liberties. Above all, we have allowed ourselves to believe that we are helpless – that it is the role of the President to make our most important decisions for us.
Obama has challenged the idea that we as a nation are somehow too weak or too unwilling to think for ourselves and to sacrifice for the larger good. He has showed us the respect borne of high expectations. He has inspired us with his hope and his faith in a better America, and asked that we as citizens work to make it a reality. We have responded. Record numbers have turned out to cast their votes, including many groups traditionally skeptical of the political process. As of the most recent primaries, we continue to do so, and Obama continues to win States.
Now, I am concerned that he is losing the core of his message – the one that Hillary appropriated so well on Sunday. My hope for Obama is that he will return to expressing the principles that gave him his initial momentum. I want to be invited back into our project of renewing America – only not through giving money or cheering madly at rallies. I want to be invited back by his telling me, honestly, what he sees as the central problems in our country today, and what, precisely, he plans to do about them. And I want him to let me know that his vision includes a role for me, one of service as well as privilege, in making it a reality.
Jesse Last grew up in Massachusetts, attended Pomona College in California, and lives and works in Santa Fe, New Mexico. As a Truman Scholar, he is passionate about public service and interested in energy, sustainability and finance.