National Commentary

Obama’s Call to Be ‘Citizens’

The single most influential point made by President Obama in his historically-memorable State of the Union address Tuesday came right at the end, summing up the intent and spirit of the entire speech.

As he also did in his Second Inaugural Address three weeks before, he challenged the American people more directly by such a major speech than seen since John F. Kennedy intoned the immortal words, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” at his inauguration in 1961.

Obama’s version of the same sentiment was embodied in his call to everybody to be citizens, and all that is implied by that title.

“As Americans, we all share the same proud title: We are citizens,” he intoned. “It’s a word that doesn’t just describe our nationality or legal status. It describes the way we’re made. It describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others; and that well into our third century as a nation, it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story.”

Typically, the pundits reacting to the speech focused on the many specific policy initiatives it contained, and that’s fine. They routinely overlooked was what was seen as merely rhetorical window dressing adding flair and eloquence to wrap up such an address.

However, in this case, the evocation of the concept of “citizen” by the president was hardly that. It “framed” the entire speech, to put it in terms used by U.C. Berkeley linguist George Lakoff in his Washington Post op-ed last Sunday, “Want to Change America? Talk About It.”

Lakoff, a prolific writer, gained notoriety among Democrats and progressives in 2005 when he wrote an antidote to the “swift boating” and other tactics that led to the re-election of George W. Bush. With Howard Dean, he authored a small tract with a big title, “Don’t Think of an Elephant: How Democrats and Progressives Can Win.” Its subtitle was, “Know Your Values, Frame the Debate.”

In it, Lakoff described how the right, through its media outlets such as Fox News and their daily flood of radio talk show blather, framed through clever linguistic tricks, the terms of the debate in the 2004 election, and he offered remedies.

Sure enough, in the 2008 election, Democrats grabbed the high ground in the “values debate” for the first time since the days of mass civil rights activism and the War on Poverty in the 1960s.

Though they won’t say so, the right wing hates the notion of “citizen,” because it is a great equalizer. Under the mantle of “citizen,” every American, no matter how rich or poor, is placed on a level playing field.

So the president called on America to view all the issues he delineated in his speech from the standpoint of, in the framework of, the responsible citizen.

This is no mean feat. The rise of the religious right and the neo-conservatives who lifted Reagan to victory in 1980 brought with it a redefinition of the American ethos, away from notions of fairness, generosity and universal justice that prevailed in the wake of World War II to one of selfish self-interest, greed and disdain for the role of government to spread opportunity and safety nets to all.

America became a very selfish nation, and the speech by Gordon Gekko in the 1987 film, “Wall Street,” that “greed is good,” became a new national anthem.

There is no doubt that, apart from any particular policy, it was this sentiment which drove the nation over the cliff in 2007, causing immeasurable suffering while the entire world economic system teetered on the brink of collapse.

The first Obama victory was a reaction to that. His second victory has now provided an historic opportunity to reframe the debate on our national destiny in a constructive way. Obama’s speech Tuesday was up to that challenge.