Obama’s New Citizenship (Is Anyone Listening?)

by Peter Spiro

From the closing of last night’s State of the Union:

We may do different jobs, and wear different uniforms, and hold different views than the person beside us. But as Americans, we all share the same proud title:

We are citizens. It’s a word that doesn’t just describe our nationality or legal status. It describes the way we’re made. It describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others; and that well into our third century as a nation, it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story.

This now qualifies as a refrain, in the DNC acceptance speech, the second inaugural, and now this. Has Obama arrived at a theme for his second term?

Let’s call it the New Citizenship.

Great stuff, if anyone were buying. But there isn’t enough solidarity on the ground for even so thoughtful and impassioned an exponent as Obama to pull this off. Americans are migrating away from this sense of mutuality (at least specially with other Americans), and no leader is going to be able to reverse the trend. That may be too bad, but that’s probably just the way it is.


4 Responses

  1. Peter – Thanks for this; really like your post.  But why is the President limiting the paradigm of “our rights … wrapped up in the rights of others” to citizenship and nationhood?  Seems to conflict with the earlier part of his State of the Union in which he spoke about Burma and universal (transnational) rights. Of course, the nation-state still performs important work legally and conceptual, but politically — at least in the U.S. — we are at an impasse on all the big issues of the day.  Best, Catherine Powell

  2. Not sure what the complaint in the first comment about being “at an impasse on all the big issues of the day” refers to.  We’ve nationalized healthcare, reformed the financial services system, bailed out and saved the US auto industry, spent billions subsidizing green businesses, significantly expanded the welfare state, raised taxes on the rich, ended the war in Iraq and are winding down the war in Afghanistan.

  3. Agree (mostly) with the identification of the track record of the last 4 years listed in Mark’s comment (though would characterize some of Obama’s achievements differently).  But the issues for a 2nd termgoing forward — which is what after all the State of the Union was a roadmap of — is what Obama was calling for bi-partisan support on that the two parties are very much at odds on (ie, sequester, immigration reform, marriage equality).  Not a complaint; just an observation triggered by Peter’s post.

  4. Catherine, I agree – there is (always) a tension between proclaiming special rights for citizens against the backdrop of universal rights. That’s one major reason I think the citizenship trope is less sustainable than it once was. As we become more sensitized to the latter, the contradiction becomes harder to ignore.

    The other is (as you point out) that solidarity within the national community seem frayed. That notwithstanding the developments that Mark points to, which of course were highly contested and worked more from legacy throughput than any sort of prevailing sense of solidarity. Thanks for the thoughts. 

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