by Joshua H. Liberatore
One of POTUS’s more informal tasks is to provide ad hoc encouragement and motivational support to Us the People. In town hall meetings and other rowdy settings, POTUS often strikes a hortatory tone befitting his community organizer background. He also seeks to draw on his relative youth and his November electoral success among younger voters to engage a new generation of activists and inventors. But POTUS is not advocating that Americans undertake service for its own sake alone. Ever the pragmatist, POTUS is interested in tangible outcomes that will enhance prosperity and well-being all over Freedom’s Land, not just in inner-city youth centers and retirement homes. In his major address on the national economy at Georgetown University, POTUS offered some very specific career advice:
And I’ve asked every American to commit to at least 1 year or more of higher education or career training, and we have provided tax credits to make a college education more affordable for every American, even those who attend Georgetown. And, by the way, one of the changes that I would like to see – and I’m going to be talking about this in weeks to come – is once again seeing our best and our brightest commit themselves to making things: engineers, scientists, innovators. For so long, we have placed at the top of our pinnacle folks who can manipulate numbers and engage in complex financial calculations. And that’s good, we need some of that. [Laughter] But you know what we can really use is some more scientists and some more engineers, who are building and making things that we can export to other countries. (April 13, 2009)
POTUS has a point here, and it’s not just a clever way of assigning more blame for the financial crisis that sent the U.S. economy into a tailspin. His principle concern is the comparatively high proportion of our national income that is based on complex transfers of assets and financial services coupled with the relative dearth in high-tech manufacturing, new product development, and advanced applied research, all areas where the United States once enjoyed a competitive edge. POTUS rightly worries about the broader vulnerabilities inherent in such a distribution of national labor and focus:
It is simply not sustainable to have a 21st century financial system that is governed by 20th century rules and regulations that allowed the recklessness of a few to threaten the entire economy. It is not sustainable to have an economy where in 1 year, 40 percent of our corporate profits came from a financial sector that was based on inflated home prices, maxed-out credit cards, overleveraged banks, and overvalued assets. It’s not sustainable to have an economy where the incomes of the top 1 percent has skyrocketed while the typical working household has seen their incomes decline by nearly $2,000. That’s just not a sustainable model for long-term prosperity. (April 13, 2009)
Most often, however, the tenor of these exhortations is more general and philosophical, emphasizing the moral rewards of a life committed to public service and creative contribution. Even in Europe, POTUS closed his question-and-answer session in Strasbourg, France with a word to civic involvement:
But having said all that, I truly believe that there’s nothing more noble than public service. Now, that doesn’t mean that you have to run for President. . . . You know, you might work for Doctors Without Borders, or you might volunteer for an agency, or you might be somebody working for the United Nations, or you might be the mayor of Strasbourg. [Y]ou might volunteer in your own community. But the point is that what I found at a very young age was that if you only think about yourself – how much money can I make, what can I buy, how nice is my house, what kind of fancy car do I have – that over the long term I think you get bored. . . . I think if you’re only thinking about yourself, your life becomes diminished, and that the way to live a full life is to think about, what can I do for others? How can I be a part of this larger project of making a better world? Now, that could be something as simple as making – as the joy of taking care of your family and watching your children grow and succeed. (April 3, 2009)
The European audience seemed to approve that unusual message coming from the president of a land many on the Continent view with suspicion, on the strength of well-earned stereotypes for tremendous greed and ignorant self-gratification as motivating principles. Thus encouraged, POTUS elaborated his message, which now tilted toward sermonizing:
But I think especially for the young people here, I hope you also consider other ways that you can serve, because the world has so many challenges right now; there’s so many opportunities to make a difference. And it would be a tragedy if all of you who are so talented and energetic, if you let that go to waste, if you just stood back and watched the world pass you by. Better to jump in, get involved. And it does mean that sometimes you’ll get criticized, and sometimes you’ll fail, and sometimes you’ll be disappointed, but you’ll have a great adventure, and at the end of your life, hopefully, you’ll be able to look back and say, I made a difference. (April 3, 2009)
POTUS’s rhetorical outreach isn’t always so pure and high-minded, however. Sometimes his efforts toward recruitment smack – just a whiff perhaps – of the machine politics peculiar to the city he calls home. As his recent appearance at a town hall meeting in Arnold, Missouri demonstrated, you can take POTUS out of Chicago, but you can’t take the Chicago out of POTUS:
Q. My name is Laurel Bonebreak, and I’m a fourth grader. I was curious, how is your administration planning to be more environmentally friendly?
The President. Well, that is just a great question. That is . . . you’re a very poised and articulate fourth grader. Yes, isn’t she impressive? Yes, absolutely. We might have to run you for President some day. (April 29, 2009)
Little Laurel Bonebreak even bears a most suitable name for the old Daley operation, which during reelection years, as I recall from 2003, positions scads of ruddy-faced, leather-jacketed young men with clipboards around the neighborhoods (somewhat ominously termed “precincts”), soliciting signatures of petition to get their man back on the ballot. Signatures! Such a charming conceit really, putting the Daley apparatus on the same level as, say, PETA or Greenpeace. But like the great mayor patriarch, POTUS means business. His army of supporters just keeps on growing and growing. POTUS himself capitalized on the trend for a crucial laugh line at this year’s White House Correspondents Dinner, the annual political roast in which everything seems fair game, both partisans and opponents becoming fat targets:
In the last 100 days, we’ve also grown the Democratic Party by infusing it with new energy and bringing in fresh, young faces like Arlen Specter. [Laughter] Now, Joe Biden rightly deserves a lot of credit for convincing Arlen to make the switch, but Secretary Clinton actually had a lot to do with it too. One day she just pulled him aside, and she said, “Arlen, you know what I always say: ‘If you can’t beat them, join them.’ ” (May 9, 2009)
But like all jokes in which there is a grain of truth – his stinger about Dick Cheney penning a memoir “tentatively titled, ‘How to Shoot Friends and Interrogate People'” is certainly no exception – POTUS’s words carry a serious message of active recruitment to the national and international stages he bestrides like a colossus. Thankfully, we’ve got a few years yet before the clipboards hit the sidewalks in earnest.