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From Commencement to Campaign: Where Is the Call to Service?

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As Election Day draws near, I find myself thinking back to Barack Obama's 2008 Commencement Address at Wesleyan University. He was just candidate Obama then, coming to the end of a tough primary fight, substituting for Ted Kennedy at our graduation ceremony. I was just finishing my first year as president of my alma mater. It was a day of excitement, of hope and of inspiration.

Obama told our graduates that they should be skeptical of the notion that there were two different stories ahead of them: one the private tale of jobs and families, and the second the account of what happens in the wider world. He related how many had told him when he was graduating that he should focus on the first story: that economic security and building a family were all that really mattered. They had told him, as many were telling our undergraduates, that it was foolhardy to think you could really change the world for the better.

Candidate Obama told our graduates not to listen to such advice because it would narrow their futures and impoverish the nation. He reminded them that generations had long believed "that their story and the American story are not separate but shared." He stressed that he himself had found his calling through service to community, through significant acts of citizenship.

Service also helped define Mitt Romney's path to adulthood, though he doesn't like to dwell on his time in France as a Mormon missionary or his very active efforts as a church member to help those in his community in need of assistance. He does, of course, often refer to his leadership of the 2002 Olympics, but he does so to point to his managerial expertise rather than his public service or civic engagement.

Obama's message resonated with our graduates in 2008, and it captivated the majority of the nation by Election Day. We wanted to believe that the story of our private lives is not divorced from our public activities as citizens. How distant that message has seemed during the 2012 campaign! Over the last several months we have heard talk of taxes and of deficits, of investment and of outsourcing, of education as workforce preparation. Of course, these topics are of undeniable importance, especially in these difficult economic times. But the economic times were also difficult in the spring of 2008, and they were rapidly getting worse. Yet back then Obama chose to try to inspire us to link our ambitions for economic security to our dreams for building a more just and humane society. He chose to talk about service as well as salaries.

Why are both candidates today so reluctant to call for service? Why do they continually appeal to our desire to have our country do something for us, but rarely ask that we make personal sacrifices to improve our collective future? Have they concluded that given the tough times, they can win only be satisfying private individual's desires, without evoking our public aspirations to create a society that fosters community and individual freedom?

In 2008, candidate Obama sounded a different note: "It's only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential and discover the role that you'll play in writing the next great chapter in the American story." He was right about that. As a society, we will not be admired because of the thinness of our tax rates or of our computers. Smaller tablets and more convenient apps inspire neither compassion nor greatness. We will realize our true potential as individuals and citizens when we respond to a call to protect the most vulnerable while helping others to fully develop their abilities.

Obama ended his Wesleyan address by noting that "we may disagree as Americans on certain issues and positions, but I believe that we can be unified in service to a greater good." That belief in service to a greater good is exactly what we will need after this bitter, nasty electoral contest. We will need a call to service that will combine idealism with effectiveness, that will merge our private and public stories. We will need to hitch our wagons to something larger than ourselves. Who will try to inspire us to do so?