When I was writing my book on citizenship several years ago, I wanted to take on what I thought was a standard trope of American political discourse: “the rights and obligations of citizenship.” Though it hardly seemed like an alien phrase, I had trouble finding good examples of its use by major political leaders.
I won’t have that problem any more.
President Obama is now turning to “citizenship” almost like a drum beat. He played a citizenship theme in his Convention acceptance speech in September, his second inaugural inaugural address in January, and the State of the Union in February. He returned to citizenship in perhaps the biggest way yet in his commencement speech at Ohio State this past Sunday. The speech highlighted all the great things that graduates would go forth and do (work for the Peace Corps, start companies, “otherwise realize your vision”):
There is a word for this. It’s citizenship. And we don’t always talk about this idea much these days — citizenship — let alone celebrate it. Sometimes, we see it as a virtue from another time, a distant past, one that’s slipping from a society that celebrates individual ambition above all else; a society awash in instant technology that empowers us to leverage our skills and talents like never before, but just as easily allows us to retreat from the world And the result is that we sometimes forget the larger bonds we share as one American family.
With citizenship as the rallying call, he exhorted the graduates to educate more children, build better roads, work to confront climate change, protect kids from gun violence, etc. “[T]hat’s what citizenship is. It’s at the heart of our founding — that as Americans, we are blessed with God-given talents and inalienable rights, but with those rights come responsibilities — to ourselves, and to one another, and to future generations.”
Am I the only one picking up on the theme? Obama makes clear that he intends more than a throwaway use of the term:
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we can keep this idea of citizenship in its fullest sense alive at the national level — not just on Election Day, not just in times of tragedy, but all the days in between. And perhaps because I spend a lot of time in Washington, I’m obsessed with this issue because that sense of citizenship is so sorely needed there.
Sounds pretty personal. But I have yet to see even an op-ed piece which lands on citizenship as an emerging focal point for this Adminsitration.
Maybe that’s because he doesn’t have a lot to work with. Certainly not in Washington. But maybe not even with youngsters on college campuses. At least 10% of students at OSU Obama addressed yesterday aren’t citizens at all, or at least not American citizens. His invocation (for example) of “a deep devotion to this country that we love” couldn’t really work for them. The orientation starts to seem a little anachronistic to the extent that an audience consisting solely of Americans alone is an increasingly rare phenomenon. The group is no longer clearly bounded. For that and other reasons, what might in some other time have worked as “The New Citizenship” is unlikely to fly today.