I know President Obama's acceptance speech was a week ago. I've been thinking since then about how it fits into both the broader, philosophical debate over the role of government, and into his larger worldview expressed over a career. The most important thing the President did in Charlotte was offer a specific definition of what it means to be an American. That definition centered on one word:
But we also believe in something called citizenship – a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations.Obama argued that citizenship – being an American – means being profoundly connected to every other American alive today, as well as to those who came before us and those not yet born. This is what he means when he speaks, as he has over and over again through the years, about us being "one American family."
In Charlotte, the President also described how Americans have “responsibilities as well as rights.” He added:
“a freedom which only asks what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.” In language that evoked JFK’s inauguration, Obama then asserted: “America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.”
Here Obama introduced a crucial aspect of his conception of our national identity. We succeed both by accomplishing great things as individuals and by building things collectively, through our democratic institutions of government. He believes in balancing our individual freedom with our responsibilities to our country and our mutual obligations to our fellow Americans.
Without mentioning his name, the President was countering Paul Ryan, who offered his own definition of our national identity at the Republican National Convention. Ryan described as his ideal:
“an American journey where I could think for myself, decide for myself, define happiness for myself. That's what we do in this country. That's the American Dream. That's freedom.”
For Ryan, being an American is about freedom, but a very limited, narrow freedom, a freedom based solely on self. There's a reason why he repeated "myself" three times. The American Dream, to Ryan, is about being able to do whatever you want whenever you want. Barack Obama’s robust, civic nationalism offers a powerful, direct rebuke to the hyper-individualism of Ayn Rand, as channeled by Paul Ryan.
Obama also asserted in Charlotte:
“we don’t think that government is the source of all our problems – any more than are welfare recipients, or corporations, or unions, or immigrants, or gays, or any other group we’re told to blame for our troubles.”
Here the President made clear the difference between saying that we are – all of us – one American family, and actually meaning it. Meaning it requires us to practice and preach inclusion. It means no one, especially politicians, should gin up anxiety or hate toward one group of Americans, whether that group is defined by class, race, country of origin, sexual orientation, religion, or anything.
Was that statement political? Sure. It was a subtle but strong criticism of Mitt Romney's campaign ads that, playing on racial stereotypes held by some whites about black Americans and welfare, falsely accused the President of weakening welfare’s work requirements.
But Obama’s statement represents far more than just the back and forth of a campaign. It is central to his entire approach to American national identity and national unity. Obama believes that this civic nationalism, a sense of being part of a community defined by citizenship – not blood, culture or religion – is at the core of who we are, and who we must be.
This is something that Barack Obama has consistently placed at the center of his rhetoric for two decades. In 2008 he said he has:
“spent [his] entire adult life… insist[ing] that we all share common hopes and common dreams as Americans.”
And at the same press conference, he highlighted the:
“need to all recognize each other as Americans, regardless of race, religion, or region of the country.”
For the President, that idea is at the core of his approach to politics and to his broader philosophy of empathy, of being able to identify with the concerns and understand the perspective of a fellow American different from oneself. That’s Obama’s America.
PS-For much more on this, please take a look at my book, Obama's America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity, published recently by Potomac Books.