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The 'Great Society' in Michelle Obama's Speech

Sep 26, 2008 | Updated May 25, 2011

As I listened to Michelle Obama's speech to the DNC delegates in Denver, I was struck by this section about midway through,  and in particular by the last line (emphasis mine):

Instead of heading to Wall Street, Barack had gone to work in neighborhoods devastated when steel plants shut down and jobs dried up. And he'd been invited back to speak to people from those neighborhoods about how to rebuild their community.  The people gathered together that day were ordinary folks doing the best they could to build a good life. They were parents living paycheck to paycheck; grandparents trying to get by on a fixed income; men frustrated that they couldn't support their families after their jobs disappeared. Those folks weren't asking for a handout or a shortcut. They were ready to work -- they wanted to contribute. They believed -- like you and I believe -- that America should be a place where you can make it if you try.

Whenever I hear a Democrat tell the country what they believe, my ears perk up.  Proclaiming what one believes should happen in every persuasive political speech, but for a long time, Democrats refused to do so. Kudos to Michelle Obama. And there is no question that the story of Barack Obama becoming a community leader is inspiring.  I, too, was moved by Michelle Obama's description of her family and the roots of her husband's life as a public servant.  But above all else, I was struck by the particular brand of 'success' Michelle Obama's story described.   

For Michelle Obama, the story of her family's success is not the story of a parents who attain great wealth for themselves, but the story of adults who work hard to give opportunity to their children.  In the process of giving their children that opportunity, however, they also instill in them the worldview of self-reliance, hard work, and service.  The wealthiest parents in town cannot truly call their family a success if they raise profligate children.  To truly succeed, parents must not only put money in their pockets, but bring up children who adds value to the common good. 

The 'success' in Michelle Obama's story is rooted in principles from Emerson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt, wherein a responsible and pragmatic youth flowers into an idealistic adulthood oriented towards equality.

It was a speech that echoed what was once a great theme in American political rhetoric, but which has since been papered over by decades of right-wing pessimistic ideology.

The theme is the 'Great Society.'

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson delivered a speech to the graduating class at the University of Michigan in which he presented both a definition and a challenge:

Your imagination, your initiative, and your indignation will determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs, or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth. For in your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the  'Great Society.'

The 'Great Society' rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in out time. But that is just the beginning.

The 'Great Society' is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.

It is a place where man can renew contact with nature. It is a place which honors creation for its own sake and for what is adds to the understanding of the race. It is a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.

But most of all, the 'Great Society' is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor.

By saying that the 'Great Society' rests on abundance and liberty for all,' Johnson challenged America's youth to believe that the mere accumulation of wealth would be 'soulless' unless it gave rise to both concern and engagement with the common good, particularly as it pertained to the quality of life in our cities and towns, the sustainability of our land, and  the education of our children. 

While Michelle Obama did not call out the specific subheadings of Johnson's 'Great Society,' explicit concern for them flows from every chapter of her family history.

To the theme of 'Great Society,' Michelle Obama added a new and compelling refrain: the world as it should be.  Rather than using her words to lay out a program or a plan for building the 'Great Society,' she instead set the stage for the ideal that her husband will, no doubt, elaborate in his speech Thursday night.

'The world as it should be' is not a destination, so much as it is the energy that both unites us and drives us forward:

All of us driven by a simple belief that the world as it is just won't do -- that we have an obligation to fight for the world as it should be.

That is the thread that connects our hearts. That is the thread that runs through my journey and Barack's journey and so many other improbable journeys that have brought us here tonight, where the current of history meets this new tide of hope.

That is why I love this country.   

It may seem strange to some to hear a leader say that what they love about America is the general belief that American can be changed for the better.  But to a vast majority of the American public whom economic hardship has excluded from the promise of the 'Great Society,' the idea of 'fighting for the world as it should be' is a message that makes hearts beat and voices rise.

To pontificate in simple terms about achieving the American dream, in other words, would be tantamount to willfully accepting the wisdom of charlatans. The reality we must talk about is that America 'as it is' has been weakened by a trifecta of known, but surmountable obstacles that the present political structure refuses to face--the health of our families, the education of our children, and the sustainability of the very land that makes life possible. If we are to talk seriously about the next generation ever again contributing to and building the 'Great Society,' we must first build a political structure capable of eliminating those obstacles.

More than just introducing the story of her family, Michelle Obama put the task of facing those obstacles firmly on the table, and with that task the theme of a 'Great Society' was dusted off and placed front and center in the 2008 election.

With that in mind, the next time a friend or family member tells me that 'taxes' is the thing that concerns them most in this election, I am going to respond by telling them about Michelle Obama's speech and about the story of the 'Great Society.'

To those voters today who believe ours is a time when each of us can think of nothing more than accumulating wealth, I will repeat what Lyndon Johnson once said:

For better or for worse, your generation has been appointed by history to deal with those problems and to lead America toward a new age. You have the chance never before afforded to any people in any age.  You can help build a society where the demands of morality, and the needs of the spirit, can be realized in the life of the Nation.

So, will you join in the battle to give every citizen the full equality which God enjoins and the law requires, whatever his belief, or race, or the color of his skin?

Will you join in the battle to give every citizen an escape from the crushing weight of poverty?

Will you join in the battle to make it possible for all nations to live in enduring peace -- as neighbors and not as mortal enemies?

Will you join in the battle to build the 'Great Society,' to prove that our material progress is only the foundation on which we will build a richer life of mind and spirit?

And I will tell them what Michelle Obama said last night, reflecting on the love for her children--and the love of parents everywhere for theirs:

And as I tuck that little girl and her little sister into bed at night, I think about how one day, they'll have families of their own. And one day, they -- and your sons and daughters -- will tell their own children about what we did together in this election. They'll tell them how this time, we listened to our hopes, instead of our fears. How this time, we decided to stop doubting and to start dreaming. How this time, in this great country -- where a girl from the South Side of Chicago can go to college and law school, and the son of a single mother from Hawaii can go all the way to the White House - we committed ourselves to building the world as it should be.

Despite what the cynical voices of pessimism that dominate the media will say, this is not just an election about taxes--or just about war or just about the environment or just about healthcare or just about education.  Each issue is crucial, but above them all: this is an election in which we have the opportunity to recommit ourselves 'to building the world as it should be.' 

The 'Great Society' is a great American idea.  It sure is great to hear it again.

(cross posted from Frameshop)