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President Obama and The Era of Responsibility

Like a lot of people watching the 2004 Democratic nomination, when the “skinny kid with a funny name” stood up to speak, I took notice. Clearly, here was somebody with a sincerity and eloquence far beyond standard political rhetoric. I liked what I saw.

But when this eloquent man said “parents have to teach…children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets…It is that fundamental belief: I am my brother’s keeper. I am my sister’s keeper that makes this country work ” I became transfixed. These were the kinds of words more common for a community organizer, not a national politician. Certainly not a US Senator. They could only come from someone who possessed – and understood – social conscience. This has been absent from our political leadership for long time.

The American left has been splintered and largely ineffective – on a national political level – for a long time, too. Since the end of the Vietnam era. This is what happens when large social movements lack a cohesive ideology. You’ll be hard pressed to find many Marxists or Communists among the progressive community, perhaps rightly so. But a national movement cannot be sustained when it can only define itself by what it is NOT: “Not right-wing,” “not pro-business,” “not racist,” “not pro-war,” “not Bush.”

And we’ve seen the result. The progressive movement – responsible for some of the greatest social achievements in American history – watched as the democratic party continued to shift rightward, appeasing conservatives to the point where Republican dogma – small government; free trade, laissaiz faire – became our conventional wisdom. And look at the mess it’s made.

But things are changing, and of all the eloquence in President Obama’s inaugural, the most thoughtful and perhaps overlooked were these words:

What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility – a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task. This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

People were concerned that Obama “lacked experience” to be president. When it comes to diplomacy, or acting as Commander in Chief, or running a national government, that’s probably true. But our first 21st century president brings an altogether different kind of experience that surpasses any other president before him: He brings experience born of community organizing. For a country that strives for democracy, this is special indeed.

I think our community organizer president has quietly and with little notice just proclaimed the new American progressive movement, and he did this simply by recognizing a trend already well underway.

He calls it the Era of Responsibility. And what makes this proclamation all the more authentic – and so much sweeter – is that this is nothing new. Progressives have been living this way for a long time. We just didn’t know what it was called.

Many progressives have been living responsibly – even at greater cost and greater effort – for some time.  We make responsible purchase choices to buy fair trade and not free trade; we reject factory farming; we support local growers and buy produce that doesn’t poison the earth, or ourselves. We strive towards globalization that creates a just and sustainable world. Progressive moms are embracing natural childbirth options, nursing their children again, while parents turn off the TV, reject commercial media, and let our kids get back to the business of childhood, otherwise known as “free, unstructured play“. We’re disdaining pharmacology as the only option for wellness. We’re building new communities through the co-housing movement. Those who can are investing in socially responsible businesses that consider stakeholders, not stockholders. We’re buying cleaner cars; we’re recycling and “going green”. Progressives have been doing all of these things and much more in their own lives, among their own families, for a long time.

Who knew we were starting a movement? The Responsibility Movement.

President Obama will never be all things to all people. The pundits have been claiming that progressives will be disappointed and conservatives pleasantly surprised by what they believe will be a centrist leader.  There’s some truth to this – on a political level. But we’re already passed those worn out paradigms of “liberal” or “conservative”. Progressives can move on. We’ve got more important work to do. The Era of Responsibility is upon us.

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January 21, 2009   |  Filed Under Political   |    Permalink


1 Daniel { 01.22.09 at 5:30 pm }

It is so nice to see some unrepentant and unqualified enthusiasm for our new president. To my mind, he has certainly earned it.

While I think you give a little too much credit to progressives (I think many progressives talk the talk about issues like fair trade, but don’t walk the walk) I do think our intentions, at least, represent the era of responsibility that the president is attempting to usher in.

2 Eric { 01.22.09 at 7:13 pm }

Thanks Daniel.

You’re probably right about “walking the walk” but given where we’ve been for the last eight (28?) years, I suppose good intentions are at least the first steps on the way to good actions…

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