Saturday, February 16, 2008

Michelle Obama in Cincinnati

Or: A confluence of idealisms

We are but a bundle of needs. Some of us need housing, jobs, education, healthcare, opportunity, less red tape and more connection to our community support systems. Some of us need safe neighborhoods and to not be forgotten. All of us need to be treated with dignity and respect regardless of our economic status, our upbringings, our genders, races or families of origin.

We have other needs too. We need to make a meaningful difference. Most of us find it hard to be happy while others suffer, while there's a lack of justice, when we know about it, when we are connected to it. Michelle Obama tapped into both sides of the "need equation" last night, offering a message I found not just inspiring (the criticism of this campaign), but downright prophetic.

We've been told for a long time (my entire adult life, if I'm honest) that Americans wanted nothing more than security from dangers abroad, monetary success, a well-decorated home, children who could go to college on our dime, jobs that offer medical and retirement benefits, the chance to say and do whatever I want that enhances my lifestyle, lower taxes, more choices, freedom from the burdens others impose on my life, less government.

Last night, Michelle Obama painted a picture of another version of the American dream. She described the struggles of most Americans. We do what's been asked of us, yet we never arrive because the bar keeps being raised as to what constitutes success. It used to be enough to keep a savings account for your child's college fund. Now, that's a laughable solution to tuition demands. It used to be possible to own a home on one income. Now, two are invariably required. Health care no longer represents care, but terror. One misstep, one month off of insurance, one enormous medical crisis can plunge a family into financial ruin.

So even when we play by the rules, do what is asked, many Americans find it increasingly hard to live those decent lives of hard work and family. Michelle talked about her upbringing: her parents, her values, her journey apart from Barack. She grew up on the southside of Chicago. Her dad was a blue collar worker, her mom was a "stay-at-home" mom. She explained that her dad did what he knew he was supposed to do - work every day to provide for his family. And he did. She said that back then (not that long ago as she pointed out - she's 44), if you did what you were supposed to do with integrity, hard work and values, you got what you wanted: healthy family, a home, health care, good education for your kids, the promise of a retirement.

She told us that she would not like to be known as the "First Lady" (should Obama win), but as an example of what a decent public education can do. She explained that her parents sent both she and her brother to Princeton on a blue collar salary combined with student loans. Today, that would not be possible.

Along the way, the bar got raised. She explained that each time we "do what we're supposed to do," it turns out to be not quite enough. You can start saving for college and by the time your kids get there, your savings mean nothing. You can work a decent job but get a sudden illness and lose your house over the debt you incur. She explained that today, most people feel it takes two incomes to make it or you stay home with your kids at great financial sacrifice (I could certainly relate to this as we lived this way until 8 years ago).

So this "moving bar" as she called it has the average American feeling discouraged, fearful and isolated. The repeated messages we hear, though, are that if we could just work harder and figure out the system, we'd be fine again. It just means doing "that much" more.

She went on to describe Senator Obama's biographical details: raised by a single white mother in the 1960s, lived in Indonesia as a child for a few years, a grandmother in rural Kenya... a brilliant student who wound up being the first black Harvard Law Review editor who had the world at his feet (could have done anything he wanted - could have taken a big corporate law job and made his millions). But he didn't. She explained that she and Barack are both lawyers. Then she quipped, "Everyone's a lawyer. This room is probably filled with lawyers. Lawyers, lawyers - they're everywhere and we probably would all like a lot fewer of them." (Laughter) She explained that many politicians start their careers amassing wealth through their lucrative law careers so that they can then run for office.

Barack didn't. He went directly into civil rights advocacy in Chicago. She said that his philosophy is, "When you're given the gift of advocacy, you don't sell it to the highest bidder." She told us that for most of his career, each job he took, he earned less money than the previous job. She and Barack only paid off their student loans three years ago. And that was because Barack wrote two best selling books. "I don't recommend that as a financial plan!" she laughed.

Michelle then explained that the core of Barack's message has to do with what he calls an "empathy deficit." Americans have lost touch with the value of community, of pulling for each other. We are pitted against one another instead. To keep up with the demands of making a decent wage and the eroding opportunity for community, most of us don't really know any reality but the one we're living. We are out of touch with other Americans and the realities of their lives.

Yet America's greatness ought not to be based on our big achievements, but on how well we care for the weakest among us. Obama's presidency is not just historical because he is black, but because he brings his own experiences to the table—the realities most of us are living, and then some: connections to life abroad, being raised by a single mother who used food stamps, living between races at a time when race was becoming an enormous issue. Without actually mentioning the Clintons or Bushes, she drew the contrasts sharply - the sense of entitlement and privilege that attend their campaigns and administrations versus the regular lives of the Obamas.

There is within this message a call for sacrifice - not the kind that says "You have to give up your toy for her because I say so" but the kind that says, "If you hurt, I hurt. I have extra. Have some of mine." She talked about the fact that what Obama represents isn't so much change in his own person as much as a changed call or outlook - that Americans want to create a better life for each other, not just for themselves. Leadership in this arena matters. She said that the strong momentum of the Obama campaign is related to this hunger Americans have to do the right and decent thing for each other. They want to know what they can do, how they can do it.

She quipped humorously that they are attacked for being idealistic, vacuous, not substantive in the details of "the plan." "Everyone wants to know the details of 'the plan.'" She went on to say that you can read many of them on the website, but that even more, Barack does care intensely about those details. She said, "And you do want a president who does know the details, believe me."

But then she made this great comment. "Take education. It's no mystery. We already know what makes a good school. We know what classroom size should be, what kind of educational models lead to education; we know what extra-curricular activities enhance the experience—activities that used to be part of the public education system that now cost money and are community based. We know what it takes to give a well-rounded educational experience.

"How do we know that we know we know? Because we have good schools in America. We already have public schools that are doing a great job. We just don't have enough of them. We can look at the good schools and use them as models.

"This is not hard to understand. No Child Left Behind has been a disaster for the power of good teaching and the magic of education. It's time to return to what public schools should be and make them available to every child."

I really liked this common sense approach.

Michelle also went through all the steps in the journey on the campaign. She talked about how each time Barack wins a victory or raises money or meets the latest challenge, they are told that the next hurdle will be the truly defining one. But he is battle tested. This same scenario played itself out when he ran for Illinois Senate too.

What made the difference in that race, what will make the difference in this race, what will matter during an Obama presidency is the commitment and passion to make a difference by participating in the changes we say we want. It will take sacrifices and vision, extending ourselves for others rather than protecting what we've got.

I realized as I was walking out of the auditorium that it's true - we've been told for decades that the good life is a better house, more money, fewer taxes, fewer restrictions on what I want to do. But most of us also want our lives to matter, to make a difference for others. Like JFK before him, Obama is asking us to think about how we can translate our idealism and dreams into practical action that will enhance our communities.

Honestly, I liked the whole night. To think of someone of his background in the White House (not the silver spoon, not the old cronies, not the political insiders)... to imagine someone leading whose aim is to take that advocacy in his background and use it for reshaping how Americans see their "American dream"... well, I'm ready for that. That sounds like change in the best ways to me. That's the kind of experience I'd like in the White House.


Ampersand said...

Thank you so much for this, Julie -- the Obama campaign should hire you!

I was one of those that liked Obama from the time I read his books, and for the same reasons that you write about here.

But as the hype grew, and the youtube videos became ubiquitious, I wondered. I wondered if everything that I initially thought about Barack was still there, or if he had just become a media caricature of himself.

Reading this -- beyond the sound bytes -- helps me realize that he has not. Hearing from his partner in life is telling too, shared values and all.

There is so much wonderful content in your post, but for me, this sentence cuts to the heart of the matter:

"What made the difference in that race, what will make the difference in this race, what will matter during an Obama presidency is the commitment and passion to make a difference by participating in the changes we say we want. It will take sacrifices and vision, extending ourselves for others rather than protecting what we've got."


Ampersand said...

I take that back about Obama hiring you, because what makes the message even cooler is that it comes from your heart, freely given, through the medium of the blogosphere.