Tonight, I would like to invite you to look at and understand this political moment through the eyes of one prototypical citizen.
She is a fourth-grade teacher. She teaches at an inner-city public school. She is in her mid-thirties and plans a lifelong career teaching in our public school system. While she is a product of our public universities, she grew up in an urban environment much like that of the students she serves. This year she is responsible for the education of twenty-five of those children.
The particulars of her story or employment are not what's important. She could be a paramedic, or a police officer, or work as an accountant or a lab technician. She could work in a manufacturing plant or manage inventory for a regional distribution chain. The point is this. She works at a job vital to the function of American society. There are millions of people just like her.
What I would argue tonight is that we should measure the success or failure of the Obama administration by President Obama's impact on the lives of just such citizens.
For ease of discussion, let's call her Gina...
Gina just bought a house near the school where she works.
The house had been foreclosed and sat on the market for ten months. It's a small house with some rough edges. It also has, however, what Gina calls "bungalow charm." Gina's house lies in what most comfortable, middle-class Americans would call a tough neighborhood. It has security grates on both its external doors. Truth be told, most comfortable Americans don't have to make the fine distinctions about their housing that Americans like Gina have to make every day.
Gina lives on a safe block. Most of her neighbors work at jobs similar to hers. They are electricians and plumbers. They work in retail and health care. They live where they do because, simply put, a small house on a non-descript block in the inner city represents the best home they can afford.
Until three months ago, Gina could not have even afforded her current home. It was only the current housing crisis coupled with a municipal home loan program intended to allow public school teachers like Gina to purchase homes that allowed Gina to secure a mortgage and move from being a renter to a home owner.
Sadly, the very housing crisis that has thrown so many Americans into foreclosure and racked the financial sector was the only force that brought home values back into a range where Gina could find a home she could afford.
Gina lives on a budget. She is ferocious about that. She has to be. She bought her home knowing exactly what her mortgage payment would be and knowing exactly the repairs and upkeep she would have to do to keep her home in good shape. Like most foreclosed homes, her bungalow needed a good bit of work. The first thing that Gina did upon closing on her home was to purchase a set of big ticket items that most well-to-do Americans take for granted: a Frigidaire refridgerator, a Kenmore range, a Whirlpool washer and dryer.
Millions of Americans make similar durable goods purchases every month. Ho-hum, you might say. These purchases, however, are exactly the kind of expenditures that keep our economy ticking.
You see, while those who have lived lives based on our bubble economy the past fifteen years might have had a "hyped" view of our economy and society, Gina understands value when she sees it. There is value in a home, however humble. There is value in solid appliances that are well-made and well-kept. There is a value in teachers living in the communities that they serve and being connected to their student's lives. And, finally, I would argue, there is a fundamental value in our society investing in citizens like Gina and the web of people in her immediate community and peer-group: her students, her neighbors, her colleagues and her friends.
When our government builds a park or a library or a school, when our government subsidizes an art program or teaches our young people about the diversity and value of our natural resources, when our government builds and maintains roads and bridges, when our government invests in the education and the health and well-being of our children...it benefits every last one of us, including citizens like Gina.
Much has been made of Barack Obama's choice of personnel these last weeks. That's not the ultimate yardstick I plan on measuring President Obama and his administration by.
The yardstick I plan to use to measure our government in the coming years is simple: how does the direction Barack Obama leads our nation impact and improve the lives of citizens like Gina?
You see, for too long the priorities of our nation have been skewed. We put the hucksters and the hype-mongers at the center of our national priorities. We allowed right-wing radio shock jocks and cable network egomaniacs to pull the wool over everybody's eyes and distort our national conversation. We lost sight of what unites us and brings us together as Americans, whatever our political or cultural views.
That can't continue.
There's value in the American economy. There's innovation and culture and quality of life in front of our very eyes. Under George Bush and too many in our current Congress, we've lost sight of that and it has cost our nation dearly.
We need people like Gina to purchase and maintain their homes. We need them to invest in durable goods like washers and dryers. We need everyday American citizens to believe and see that there's a reward for hard work and education. That means rising incomes for hard working Americans and an educational system that invests in all of our citizens, no matter where they happen to live, how old they are or where they happen to have been born.
That also means an equitable distribution of the risk and rewards that go with our economy.
The $11 trillion debt...and counting...we are saddling our children with is premised on the notion of millions of Americans like Gina paying their share and participating in our economy as productive citizens. And, yes, while that share is expressed in sales tax and income tax and property tax and gas taxes, it also expressed in the willingness of everyday Americans to do the jobs that have to be done to maintain our economy. It's expressed in the willingness of citizens to live in and invest in the diverse communities around our nation where "real Americans"...rural and urban, suburban and exurban...live.
Across America, entrepreneurs have "created" billions in wealth due in no small part to the value and infrastructure created by the hard work of people just like Gina...teachers and construction workers, paramedics and assembly-line workers. It's high time that we have a President, Congress and Judiciary that gets that reality. George Bush and Dick Cheney put the wealthy and powerful at the center of our national priorities and, yep, their buddies, the wealthy and powerful of both political parties, did really well.
Barack Obama will be measured by what he does for the rest of us.
If President Obama succeeds in that task, he will tap into the real value inherent in the American economy and the real potential expressed in our society. All of us will prosper when Gina and her students prosper. That's the premise of the American experiment. It's also, in my view, the only way out of the deepening economic calamity we face as a nation.
This conclusion is not simply ideology or fluff. It's something that even some among the wealthiest Americans...those who've bothered to understand how making things and selling things impacts their bottom line...get.
There is value in the American economy. People like Gina see that value and are prepared to act on it and increase that value with their work and their lives. They always have.
It's time for Barack Obama to put people like Gina and her students at the center of our political priorities. In fact, it's only with hard work and a reenergized investment in the American dream on the part of everyday citizens that will get our nation and our economy back on the right track.
There is little in this world, from global warming, to energy independence, to how to get along with one's neighbors, that isn't expressed in what a fourth-grade teacher deals with every day.
I think Barack Obama gets this.
Isn't it time we put teachers and our children back at the center of our national priorities?