Obama Not Giving Up On The New American Citizenship

Obama Not Giving Up On The New American Citizenship

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.

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Benjamin Davis
Benjamin Davis

It is significant and you are not the only one.  But, we need to keep in mind some earlier invocations of citizenship.  First of all, James Meredith who integrated the University of Mississippi framed his whole demarche in terms of the rights of citizenship as a US citizen and as a Mississippi citizen.  We can also feel some of that in the song “The House I Live In’ as sung by Frank Sinatra and more powerfully by Paul Robeson. The new citizenship of Obama however is a curious form of citizenship at least to me.  The Inter American Court of Human Rights has a number of cases on the citizen’s right to know on torture etc by his state that collectively comes to the idea of truth commission.  Obama does not see that as part of the rights of citizens.  Nor does he see an obligation for the citizen to weigh government misconduct requiring disclosure of things to that citizen.  Moreover, as I describe briefly in this piece up at saltlaw.org/blog (http://www.saltlaw.org/blog/2013/05/06/big-data-stellar-wind-and-me-on-being-free-now/), the effect on citizen’s freedom of the storage of his digital history forever is hardly a celebration of that citizen but is a not so subtle threat to… Read more »

Rhodri Williams

Agreed – as much as I admire Obama’s rhetoric and the principles behind them, this comes across as another exhortation to rise above partisan politics during a period in American history characterised by nothing if not partisanship. If Obama wants to ‘realize’ his own vision, it wouldn’t be too late well into his second term to learn the art of crafting majorities and using them to get what you want. Finally, as an American citizen abroad and therefore subject to Congress and the IRS’ latest control freakish shock and awe campaign on taxes, I’m not particular inclined to being lectured on my obligations right at this moment, thanks very much.