By Harry C. Boyte, Center for Democracy and Citizenship
We need to rise to the occasion of citizenship. The American Democracy Project can take the lead. In the words of the civil rights song, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
I thought about this during President Obama’s televised Town Hall meeting Monday night on CNBC, three days after September 17, Constitution Day.
The opening question set the tone. A middle-class mother of two, the chief financial officer of a veterans organization, expressed her disappointment.
“I’m exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are right now,” she said. “I have been told that I voted for a man who said he was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class. I’m one of those people, and I’m waiting, sir. I’m waiting. I don’t feel it yet.”
A young graduate of law school followed. ”Like a lot of people in my generation, I was really inspired by you and by your campaign and message that you brought, and that inspiration is dying away,” he said. “It feels like the American dream is not attainable to a lot of us.”
The president dutifully listed all the things that he and the administration had tried to do. The media mavens said it wasn’t enough. “The president’s challenge is to restore confidence in his own leadership,” as Dan Blatz put it in the Washington Post.
No one mentioned the elephant in the room.
People didn’t vote for a man who said he was going to change things. The country elected a president whose message was “yes we can.” This is the message of the Preamble to the Constitution. The Preamble doesn’t say the president – or government — will solve our problems. It reads
We the people…in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States of America.
Before 1787, in the great arc of human history, governments were not seen as created by the people as the instrument of the people’s work. Governments were handed down from antiquity. They were established by kings. They were imagined as acts of nature.
It was a breathtaking and bold statement for our nation’s founders to say, “We the people” establish our government as our instrument.
This was precisely the message that Barack Obama ran on for president.
Announcing his campaign in Springfield, Ill., on Feb. 10, 2007, Barack Obama said, “This campaign has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, restoring our sense of common purpose.” As he campaigned in the Iowa caucuses, he described his experiences as a community organizer. “In church basements and around kitchen tables, block by block, we brought the community together, fought for new jobs, and helped people live lives with some measure of dignity.” During the campaign, a continuing message was that “active citizenship… will be a cause of my presidency.”
I kept thinking what a difference it would have made if one or two voters on Monday night had looked at the president, at journalists– and then turned to other voters and reminded the nation, we voted for “yes we can.”
At the Civic Agency Institute of the American Democracy Project on November 11-12 in Washington, I think we should discuss, plan, and strategize about how the students, faculty, and staff of our colleges and universities can join with libraries, community groups, and others to build a movement to reclaim our role as “we the people.”
Or, put differently, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.