It would not be shocking to know that I’m thrilled that Obama won; my friends know me as a big Democrat (figuratively, but also literally, as I’m a 6’6″ 290 lb. guy), and my very liberal politics bleeds into my writing. But what might shock some of my friends (and probably none of you, given the topics of my recent posts) is the reason I’m happy he won. It’s not just that Obama is the first Democrat to win the presidency since my political awakening; it’s not just that he’s the first black president (sorry Bill); and it’s not just that he is a Millennial-friendly president. For me, the excitement is rooted in his views on the relationship between Americans and their government.

On Thursday Peter Levine wrote a blog post about this relationship in the context of other presidents’ views.

Obama’s core idea is that citizens are at the center of politics. Not private individuals, not the government, not politicians, but people working together in public, on public matters. Campaigning in New Hampshire in 2006, he said, “There’s a wonderful saying by Justice Louis Brandeis once, that the most important office in a democracy is the office of citizen. … All of us have a stake in this government, all of us have responsibilities, all of us have to step up to the plate.”

Obama broke away from the helping model that still guided Hilary (sic) Clinton and from the privatism that was the main theme of modern conservatism. On the campaign trail, he modeled his new conception in two important ways–by making his campaign maximally participatory (pushing power out to the network) and by lowering the partisan temperature a notch. He is a Democrat and he was willing to debate and compete with Republicans. But he never seemed to relish this difference. The reason is that citizens are both liberal and conservative, and they need to work together to solve any serious problems. Competition is appropriate in a campaign, but campaigning is a role for politicians, and they are not the heart of politics.

Obama believes the epicenter of American politics is the people, Levine notes. And Obama’s campaign certainly reflected this belief. Obama had the largest grassroots operation in history, and created, the internet-based propellant for the movement. Obama inspired legions of supporters, building a new coalition of Americans that would lead him to victory Tuesday night.

But Levine emphasizes that politics is not limited to elections in Obama’s eyes. And so the election itself is not about merely winning; the election is about getting the chance to solve problems. Such an approach necessitates a responsible, civil, supporter-focused campaign, one focused on the issues that yields the fewest number of barriers possible to effective problem-solving, and one that empowers the problem-solvers, energizing us to do the post-election work.

So what about that work? And how does it fit into our discussion about the relationship between the people and their government?

On July 2nd of this year, Obama touched on his expectations for Americans in an address on active citizenship and service in Colorado Springs, CO.

The thesis of the speech (and his campaign):

I am running for President, right now, because of what Dr. King called the fierce urgency of now. This moment is too important to sit on the sidelines. Our country faces determined enemies abroad, and definitive challenges at home. But I have no doubt that in the face of these odds, people who love their country can change it. That is why I am running for President. That is why I’m determined to reach out – not just to Democrats, but to Independents and Republicans who want to move in a new direction. And that is why I won’t just ask for your vote as a candidate – I will ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am President of the United States.

This will not be a call issued in one speech or one program – this will be a central cause of my presidency. We will ask Americans to serve. We will create new opportunities for Americans to serve. And we will direct that service to our most pressing national challenges.


…Make no mistake: our destiny as Americans is tied up with one another. If we are less respected in the world, then you will be less safe. If we keep paying dictators for foreign oil, gas prices are going to keep rising, and so are the oceans. If we can’t give all of our kids a world-class education, then our economy is going to fall behind.

And that’s how it should be. That’s the bet our Founding Fathers were making all of those years ago – that our individual destinies could be tied together in the common destiny of democracy; that government depends not just on the consent of the governed, but on the service of citizens. That’s what history calls us to do. Because loving your country shouldn’t just mean watching fireworks on the 4th of July. Loving your country must mean accepting your responsibility to do your part to change it. If you do, your life will be richer, and our country will be stronger.

We need your service, right now, at this moment – our moment – in history. I’m not going to tell you what your role should be; that’s for you to discover. But I am going to ask you to play your part; ask you to stand up; ask you to put your foot firmly into the current of history. I am asking you to change history’s course. And if I have the fortune to be your President, decades from now – when the memory of this or that policy has faded, and when the words that we will speak in the next few years are long forgotten – I hope you remember this as a moment when your own story and the American story came together, and – in the words of Dr. King – the arch of history bent once more towards justice.

This speech certainly defines the citizen and his/her responsibilities as the center of American politics. It calls on citizens to serve each other based on the common purpose shared with their American brothers and sisters. But even more importantly, Obama doesn’t stop at the end of the election. Obama is clearly not limiting this discussion to campaign workers doing their part in a campaign, and he’s clearly not stopping with the request for votes. He’s asking for Americans to take ownership of their country by hitching their individual hopes and dreams to the greater American saga. He’s asking for Americans to invest in a country that’s already given them so much. Service is symbiotic, as Obama noted: “Loving your country must mean accepting your responsibility to do your part to change it. If you do, your life will be richer, and our country will be stronger.”

One visit to demonstrates his commitment to this philosophy. Under “America Serves,” Obama broadens the opportunity to serve, tripling the number of service-oriented “corps” in the government.

The Obama Administration will call on Americans to serve in order to meet the nation’s challenges. President-Elect Obama will expand national service programs like AmeriCorps and Peace Corps and will create a new Classroom Corps to help teachers in underserved schools, as well as a new Health Corps, Clean Energy Corps, and Veterans Corps.

The message is clear: Americans can serve [and should be serving] their country no matter what their background is, no matter what their skills are; everyone has something to offer everyone else.

Frances Moore Lappe wrote about citizenship in her book Hope’s Edge (2002).

To me, democracy is an exciting, living practice, what we do every day. But to most, democracy still means something done “to us” or “for us” — it doesn’t relate to our daily lives, and it sure isn’t much fun. I now see that to engage in democracy, to jump into this living practice, we all need something tangible to act on. (p. 31)

Obama’s victory excited me because he empowered me. He asked me to do something. He welcomed me to the table, asking me to bring my gifts so they could mesh with the gifts of other Americans. He wants me to be involved — not just to get him elected, but to make our country better. He’s not interested in a paper-thin democracy that only asks citizens to get involved when his career’s at stake; he wants to thicken democracy, forging connections between the “Great Experiment” itself and the millions of lives it benefits.