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Obama in the balance

Alex Coccia | Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Heading into the final night of the Democratic National Convention, President Obama had to carefully construct his balancing act. He had to address the promises of his 2008 campaign, while at the same time create ones for the next four years. He had to acknowledge the reality of the current economy and jobs market, while projecting his inherent optimism into his policies. He had to emanate a personal responsibility for his policies, while at the same time congratulate collective victories. He had to accept failures gracefully, and promote successes humbly. In short, he had to present a much more realistic portrait of the presidency, having had the experience of a first term. He indicated he was no longer running as a candidate, but as President.
First lady Michelle Obama covered his personal character, saying he believes “when you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. You reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.”
President Bill Clinton compared him with the Republican candidates Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, reiterating a criticism by Paul Krugman, an economics professor at Princeton University, that their numbers just do not add up on the budget. He also illustrated the type of balance that President Obama learned while in office. “Nobody’s right all the time, and a broken clock is right twice a day. And every one of us and every one of them, we’re compelled to spend our fleeting lives between those two extremes, knowing we’re never going to be right all the time and hoping we’re right more than twice a day.”
Dr. Cornel West, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, describes this balance as necessary part of being human. “To encounter honestly the inescapable circumstances that constrain us, yet muster the courage to struggle compassionately for our own unique individualities and for more democratic and free societies.”
Barbara Deming, an American feminist, advocated a similar view, calling this necessary balance an equilibrium between self-assertion and respect for others, one that highlights these unique individualities and the ambition for the common good.
President Obama calls this balance citizenship: “The idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations.” Citizenship and collective agency were the themes that carried the Democratic National Convention and that gave a collaborative face to the presidency.
In balancing past and future campaign promises, President Obama acknowledged that “the times have changed” and that he is “far more mindful of [his] own failings.” Yet, his promise for America is founded on the inspiring acts of individual Americans who know what citizenship means – a hope out of desperate times, sacrifice for a greater good. He mentioned a family business in Minnesota that did not lay off one employee during the recession, an act of true citizenship, where even the strivers did not lose sight of the people around them. Obama effectively identified what the pressure and resilience of constituencies can do: provide healthcare regardless of pre-existing conditions, make education affordable and open the door of citizenship to thousands of immigrants.
Obama struck a balance in his new “Forward” slogan, revealing a mixture of “hope” weathered by partisanship and a more determined “change we can believe in.” “Forward” has important ties to citizenship, especially taking his 2008 campaign into account. “Forward” carries with it more resilience, nose-to-the-grindstone experience than the 2008 slogans. “Forward” says, “Yes, we can. We will.” “Forward” embodies the clear choice that both Democrats and Republicans have in this election, because the only acceptable direction is “Forward” in a progressive democracy. But most importantly, “Forward” acknowledges the path already traveled – it grants the lessons learned from mistakes, the experiences of successes and failures and, yet, it is a direction for an entire society, not just an individual.
The president voiced a stark realization at the convention. “The election four years ago wasn’t about me. It was about you. My fellow citizens – you were the change.” It was a golden line, rhetorically powerful, one of the more poignant moments, and indicative of “Forward” as a direction founded on the idea that “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.” The way forward in a democracy is citizenship in action, which President Obama highlighted as the fundamental reason for change. Citizenship assumes no path is easy. Citizenship means that finding the balance of self-assertion and protecting others requires us to vote for values as well as policies. Ultimately, this election is about whose policies and leadership best reflect citizenship, affirming that rights cannot be called inalienable if they are not granted to everyone, because, as Clinton reminded us, “poverty, discrimination and ignorance restrict growth” and the movement forward.
Alex Coccia is a junior Africana and peace studies major, and a gender studies minor. He can be reached at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.