THE BLOG
05/21/2008 01:28 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama: the Second Half

In the my wildest dreams, during eighteen years of championing communitarianism, I did not expect a presidential candidate to be as strongly identified with this political philosophy as Obama is. It is hence particularly important that he will not limit his message to "we are not from red states, not from blue states, but from the United States"--but will add: "Ask not what your country...."; that he will go beyond we-are-all-in this-together kumbaya--to we all will have to put our shoulders to the wheel to get this train back on the tracks; from feel-good politics, sprinkled liberally with the holy water of hope that has no cost-- to political leadership which seeks a mandate for change that will require sacrifices for the common good. In short, follow the communitarianism of responsibility above and beyond that of community-building, which is by far the less taxing part.

In The Audacity of Hope, written before Obama declared his bid for the presidency, the author showed, even more then President Kennedy, he understood that we should "ground our politics in the notion of a common good." Obama was well versed not only in the language of rights and entitlements but also that of obligations. In those far away days, in 2005, he wrote, "We value the imperatives of family and the cross-generational obligations that family implies...We value patriotism and the obligations of citizenship, a sense of duty and sacrifice on behalf of our nation."

Better yet, Obama used to stress that "in the end a sense of mutual understanding isn't enough. After all, talk is cheap; like any value, empathy must be acted upon." He recounted with pride that when he was a community organizer "[he] would often challenge neighborhood leaders by asking them where they put their time, energy and money." In those days, he put it better than any other communitarian when he stated: " If we aren't willing to pay a price for our values, if we aren't willing to make some sacrifices in order to realize them, then we should ask ourselves whether we truly believe in them at all."

On the campaign trail many of these profound insights have faded. We now hear painless declarations such as "Our prosperity can and must be the tide that lifts every boat; that we rise or fall as one nation." And such undemanding observations as "...too often, we lose our sense of common destiny; the] understanding that we are all tied together."

True, occasionally we still hear echoes of the old Obama; but now the recognition that sacrifice we must appears as a sort of after thought. On the campaign trail Obama typically declares that now we "...require a new spirit of cooperation, innovation, and shared sacrifice."

The nation is upon hard times. Its coffers are empty; creditors are at the gate; the military is exhausted and depleted; the regard with which America is held overseas is at all time low, and major economic and security challenges pile up like that many storm clouds. The nation demands a prolonged period of restoration, one in which merely replenishing all that was squandered will entail raising taxes and keeping new expenditures under a tight leash. In plain English--sacrifices. If the next president will enter office without a mandate for such give rather than take, especially for imposing a hefty tax on oil, we are likely to sink deeper into the ditch in which we have been cast rather than to start to climb out.

Granted, being straight with the American people is to engage in risky politics. Walter Mondale got his head handed to him when he candidly addressed the need for raising taxes (although his main problem was not his candor but that he seems to look forward with glee to higher taxes rather than bemoan their inevitably). Jimmy Cater got into similar trouble when he tried to impose a tiny tax (50 cents) on gasoline. And John F Kennedy did not get to "Ask Not" until his inauguration. In contrast, Ronald Regan sailed into White House on wave of hope of a new morning in America, which required no more than being there at dawn.

Maybe the best one can hope for is not a Churchillian call for 'blood, sweat, and tears," but for Obama as the presidential candidate to quote the author of Audacity of Hope. For him to lay out the full communitarian message-- that community building does not mean merely embracing one another and laying to rest our divisions, but also serving the common good. That our rights are sacred but so are our responsibilities.

Better, Obama can employ a communitarian device and ask the people what they believe. Do Americans see a need for sacrifices? How would they free us from our dependency on imported oil? What are they willing to do to get the nation out of debt? How far do they hold that nation should go in protecting itself from terrorism?

Amitai Etzioni is the founder and director of the Communitarian Network and author most recently of Security First: For a Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy. To contact him, email comnet@gwu.edu.