The work before us is our work, not just his

  • Article by: HARRY C. BOYTE
  • May 3, 2009 - 6:26 AM

Over the first 100 days of his presidency, Barack Obama changed his message from "we" to "I." The challenge for the president, if he is to achieve his administration's potential to unleash the energy of the nation, is to return to and flesh out "yes, we can" in the everyday work of addressing our common problems.

Obama launched his campaign for president with the idea that "all of us have responsibilities, all of us have to step up to the plate." He had learned a philosophy of civic agency -- that we all must become agents of change -- from his days as a community organizer in Chicago. And in extraordinary ways, he used the presidential campaign as a vehicle for taking the message of agency to the nation. "I'm asking you not only to believe in my ability to make change; I'm asking you to believe in yours," read the campaign website. The message was expressed in campaign slogans such as "we are the ones we've been waiting for," drawn from a song of the freedom movement of the 1960s.

It also infused the campaign's field operation. As Tim Dickinson, a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine, put it in a review of how the field operation reflected an organizing approach, "The goal is not to put supporters to work but to enable them to put themselves to work, without having to depend on the campaign for constant guidance." Field director Temo Figueros explained, "We decided that we didn't want to train volunteers. We wanted to train organizers -- folks who can fend for themselves."

On Wednesday night, at the news conference marking the first 100 days of his administration, Obama was asked what he intends to do as the chief shareholder of some of the largest U.S. companies. "I've got two wars I've got to run already," he laughed. "I've got more than enough to do."

The change has partly reflected the administration's adjustment to the fierce pressures of the Washington press corps. As Peter Levine noted as early as December 2006, reporters and pundits assumed that Obama's words about citizenship and involvement "were just throat-clearing." Journalists and pundits constantly demand that he explain what he is going to do to solve the problems facing the country.

But the general citizenry outside of government is not composed of innocent bystanders. In our consumer-oriented society, we too easily assume that government's role is to deliver the goods. Dominant models of civic action, as important as they are -- deliberation, community service, advocacy -- fit into the customer paradigm, as ways to make society more responsive and humane. The older concepts at the heart of productive citizenship -- that democracy is the work of us all, that government is "us," not "them" -- have sharply eroded.

I asked Elizabeth Kautz her advice for the new president. Kautz has been mayor of Burnsville, Minn., since 1994. She has gained national recognition for reviving the concept that government's role is to facilitate the public work of the people. She is the incoming president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors -- the first suburban mayor to achieve such recognition.

Throughout her tenure in office, Kautz has said, "I can't solve the problems of Burnsville by myself, but I can bring people together to do the work of the community."

Burnsville has become a model for innovation and participation on many fronts, from its "Heart of the City" park and performing arts center -- which are helping to fuel regional economic development -- to mixed-use housing, wetland protection and education reform. Annual surveys show increasing citizen involvement over many years.

Many elements of the Burnsville story are of relevance. City government agencies have been reorganized to involve citizens. A monthly governance forum allows people to discuss hot-button issues and to see if common ground can be achieved. Kautz constantly gives recognition to those who step up to the plate.

But Kautz insists that at bottom the real challenge is simply to stay the course. "When I say 'we,' reporters always come back with a question to get me to say, 'I,'" she explained. "In my campaigns, I'm always talking about 'we' but voters say, 'We're not running for office, you are.' That is the challenge. Sometimes it's a very lonely place to stand. You have to believe that everyone is valuable and has something to bring to the table, even if they are complaining. At the end of the day you have to stay true to your intentions. You have to keep your eye on what it is we have to do together."

The idea that it will take the work of us all is as crucial in Washington as it is in Burnsville.

Harry C. Boyte, codirector of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute, was cochair of the civic engagement subcommittee of the Obama campaign.

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