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Glenn Beck, President Obama, and the Hunger for Purpose in Times of Transition

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This is a time of great transition for the country. The way we have long approached our lives is no longer viable -- and what will replace it is still not clear. And with virtually every institution that once provided stability to American life now in question, millions are being thrust into a new, much harsher reality.

This weekend -- which included the fifth anniversary of the needless tragedy of Katrina, a presidential visit to New Orleans, and Glenn Beck's rally in Washington -- found me in the middle of my own family's transition, dropping my daughter off for her freshman year of college and listening to the welcome speech delivered by Yale President Rick Levin.

His words were aimed primarily at the incoming students, but as he spoke about wrestling "with the deepest questions of how one should live," "discovering an unsuspected passion," and learning "to understand how meaning is extracted from experience," it struck me how useful his advice is for everyone -- including the millions of Americans who've lost jobs and homes, and are re-evaluating their lives.

Levin pointed out how the students "come from all 50 states and 58 nations" and urged them (and their parents) to go "entirely outside the range of your past experience," and "stretch yourself." "If the friends you make here are exclusively those who come from backgrounds just like your own and went to high schools just like your own," he said, "you will have forfeited half the value of a Yale education. Seek out friends with different histories and different interests; you will find that you learn the most from the people least like you."

He really struck a chord in me when he spoke of the "emerging burden of citizenship," and of responsibilities beyond "self-gratification and personal advancement." He urged the next generation to "raise the level of public discourse." And, lamenting how "oversimplified ideology and appeal to narrow interest groups have triumphed over intelligence and moderation in civic discussion," Levin said that by demanding "serious discussion instead of slogans that mask narrow partisan interests," the new students -- and, by extension, the rest of us -- will be able to "help to make our democracy more effective."

Great advice for college freshmen, but equally useful for Americans at any stage of life. As I detail in my forthcoming book, Third World America, our democracy is failing us, and making it more effective is only going to happen from the bottom up, not as a result of those in Washington.

Millions of Americans are being forced to go outside the range of their experience by the staggering decline of the middle class. And discussions of what it means to have a good life, of what's really valuable in life, are no longer confined to the classroom.

With Rick Levin's words still running through my head, I traveled to Nantucket for a friend's birthday -- and later that day was at a gathering with Michael Sandel, discussing many of the same themes. Sandel is a professor of government at Harvard whose class on "Justice" has attracted a huge following.

In our discussion, as well as in his brilliant book Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?, Sandel presents his vision of a "more robust and engaged civic life than the one to which we've become accustomed." In explaining how we get there, he quoted another speaker:

Each day, it seems, thousands of Americans are going about their daily rounds--dropping off the kids at school, driving to the office, flying to a business meeting, shopping at the mall, trying to stay on their diets -- and they're coming to the realization that something is missing. They are deciding that their work, their possessions, their diversions, their sheer busyness, is not enough. They want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives.

The speaker was Barack Obama, giving a speech in Washington, DC on "A Call to Renewal" in June 2006. It's a powerful and deeply spiritual speech in which then-Senator Obama talked about "the role that values and culture play in some of our most urgent social problems," and the need for "an injection of morality in our political debate."

Sandel cites the speech to show how Obama, who had been in the Senate only a year and a half at that point, understood the "moral and spiritual yearning abroad in the land." Sandel groups Obama with Robert F. Kennedy -- both of them seeing justice as involving "cultivating virtue and reasoning about the common good."

Kennedy, writes Sandel, "tried to summon the nation to more demanding moral and civic ideals," that went beyond simply consumption. As Kennedy famously said, the GDP "measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile."

But after he was tragically gunned down, Sandel writes, "liberals embraced the language of neutrality and choice, and ceded moral and religious discourse to the emerging Christian right." Until, that is, the arrival of Obama, who, like Kennedy, "sought to rally Americans to a new era of civic engagement." In his 2008 campaign, Obama, says Sandel, "tapped Americans' hunger for a public life of large purpose and articulated a politics of moral and spiritual aspiration."

The president echoed this rhetoric during his speech Sunday on the anniversary of Katrina, citing New Orleans as a "symbol of resilience":

Together, we are helping to make New Orleans a place that stands for what we can do in America -- not just for what we can't do. And, ultimately, that must be the legacy of Katrina: not one of neglect, but of action; not one of indifference, but of empathy; not of abandonment, but of a community working together to meet shared challenges.

But, by and large, since taking office, the president has failed to feed the hunger for a larger purpose in public life, and left the moral and spiritual aspiration on the backburner. This is all the more problematic now that the crises America is facing are much deeper than when Senator Obama spoke on the Call to Renewal in 2006 or on the 2008 campaign trail -- making rallying the country to a new era of civic engagement even more vital.

The large turnout at Glenn Beck's rally on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech speaks to the fact that the yearning has not been satisfied. Beck gave a speech noticeably devoid of partisan rhetoric -- talking instead about values and morals and God and the power of individuals to change the world. "For too long, this country has wandered in darkness,'' said Beck. ''This country has spent far too long worrying about scars and thinking about scars and concentrating on scars. Today, we are going to concentrate on the good things in America, the things that we have accomplished, and the things that we can do tomorrow.''

In 2006, Senator Obama warned that if progressives didn't "reach out to evangelical Christians and other religious Americans and tell them what we stand for," others would "fill the vacuum." In 2010, the president's stepping back from his promise to call us to a higher form of civic engagement means that a vacuum has been left during this historic moment of transition.

"The challenge is to imagine a politics that takes moral and spiritual questions seriously," says Sandel, "but brings them to bear on broad economic and civic concerns, not only on sex and abortion." Justice, he writes, "is not only about the right way to distribute things. It is also about the right way to value things."

And in this time of economic turmoil, it's time to reevaluate how we value things. "A just society can't be achieved simply by maximizing utility or by securing freedom of choice," writes Sandel. "To achieve a just society we have to reason together about the meaning of the good life."

What were thought by many to be the ingredients of the good life just a short time ago -- a job, a home, a secure retirement, a college education for your kids, and prospects for a brighter future for them -- are no longer attainable simply by hard work and playing by the rules. And it doesn't appear that this will change any time soon.

This weekend on CNN, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan reversed his rosy pronouncements from last month and admitted the depth of the problem. "The July numbers were worse than we expected, worse than the general market expected, and we are concerned," he said, becoming one of the first administration officials to bring his tone into alignment with the dismal reality millions of Americans are experiencing.

Equally grim was the assessment in a new report by the University of Maryland's Carmen Reinhart, who, according to the New York Times, this weekend told a gathering of central bankers from around the world that economic recovery would be, as the Times put it, "painfully slow" and that there could be "stubbornly high unemployment for a decade or longer."

It's becoming clearer by the day that whatever "good life" the country is going to have in the future, it's not going to be delivered by consumption -- and, in the foreseeable future, it is unlikely to be delivered by Washington. The new "good life" will have to be "reasoned together" by all of us and forged together in our own communities and in our own families. As Obama said in 2006, "solving these problems will require changes in government policy, but it will also require changes in hearts and a change in minds."

No matter what stage of transition we are at -- and even if change has been painfully foisted on us -- it's important to see ourselves as more than a bundle of needs. We can all have a voice in redefining what the "good life" will mean going forward -- and a hand in creating it. On HuffPost's Third World America section, we are highlighting six steps we can take right now to help rebuild our lives, our communities, and our country. The first step: share your story. Economic disorder can be enormously isolating. But there can be real value in stepping forward and describing your experience.

I want to make it clear, however, that even though the first five steps involve personal actions, in no way are we letting Washington off the hook. That's why the last of the steps is holding our leaders accountable. While citizens will have to play a key role in America's recovery, our elected officials need to seize the policy reins and stop waiting for the economy to magically "turn the corner" on its own.

In a tough editorial entitled "Waiting for Mr. Obama" the New York Times said it well:

Mr. Obama and his economic team had clearly hoped for an economic rebound in time for the midterm elections. They are not going to get it. The economic damage they inherited was too deep, and the economic stimulus they pushed through Congress, for all of the fight, was too small. Standing back is not doing the country or his party any good. We believe Americans are ready for hard truths and big ideas.

Hard truths and big ideas. A narrative arc to our lives. The emerging burden of citizenship. Now that "the better life" is beyond the reach of so many, Americans are hungrier than ever for a new definition of "the good life." While Washington is dithering, we can step up the work of transforming our communities and the lives of those around us. And that's something both Barack Obama and Glenn Beck should agree on.

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