Obama Has Called the Nation to Service; He Needs to Call It to Sacrifice

03/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Glendower: "I can call spirits from the vasty deep."

Hotspur: "Why so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?"
(Henry IV, Part 1: III, i)

President Obama has done an admirable job of calling people to national service. Unlike George H.W. Bush, who called for "1000 points of light" but had no personal history of doing anything for anyone, Barack Obama's summoning is credible and inspiring. Moreover, beckoning people out of their routines exposes them first-hand not only to others' needs but also to the rewards of doing something for others.

After 9/11, when the attacks gave him instant power, George Bush only called the nation to go shopping. He himself had never sacrificed anything for anybody. When asked in 1994 by the Houston Chronicle why he joined the Air National Guard during Vietnam, George Bush told them: "I didn't want to go to Canada. I didn't want to shoot off my toe. And, I thought it would be good for me to learn how to fly a plane". [Note: all about himself, nothing about country, so any surprise about the last 8 years?]

Barack Obama, on the other hand, has great credibility in calling people to sacrifice. He himself not only came from a difficult childhood background but , as president of the Harvard Law Review with corporate law offers galore, decided instead to devote himself to rescuing a community. He enjoys enormous appeal plus he technology to rally the country to shared sacrifice for a better future.

Thusfar, however, when the president has had that opportunity, he has shied away.

During the campaign Joe Biden suggested that it is patriotic for the wealthier to pay taxes and was met by a torrent of rightwing criticism. It was far more patriotic, they said, for people to accumulate and horde as much of their own money as possible.

So, let us get this straight: according to the rightwing, it is patriotic to sacrifice your life, your limbs, your mental status in war, but it is unpatriotic to part with a portion of your wallet for the common good.

Listening to CNBC -- admittedly biased to Wall Street, but the only worthwhile network for financial crisis reporting -- the anchors make constant references to the need for incentives, for bonuses, for company jets, otherwise, we are told, the Wall Streeters will stop working or walk away. Melissa Francis, a CNBC anchor, was nearly apoplectic the other day at the mere thought that Wall Street executives might be spending time in security lines at airports if they were not allowed to have their corporate jets. (Thank you, Melissa, I do not want those people clogging my security line either.)

During the "steel crisis" in 1962, President Kennedy put the stab-in-the-back rise in steel prices in the context of the crises the country faced, and the sacrifices of servicemen and women, and reservists:

when we are asking reservists to leave their homes and families for months on end and servicemen to risk their a time when restraint and sacrifice are being asked of every citizen, the American people will find it hard, as I do, to accept a situation in which a tiny handful of steel executives, whose pursuit of private power and profit exceeds their sense of public responsibility can show such utter contempt for the interests of 185 million Americans.

(Public Papers of the Presidents, John F. Kennedy, 1962, p. 316)

Sometime ago I asked each American what he could do for his country, and I asked the steel executives. In the last 24 hours we had their answer.

(Ibid, p. 317).

To date, the arguments in 2009 against high salaries, conventions, bonuses and corporate jets on Wall Street have focused on the misuse of taxpayer money that was used to bail out the institutions.

Although certainly valid, those arguments are a missed opportunity for a larger and more profound and ultimately more transformational message: What about shared sacrifice for the good of the country? What about motivating your employees to right what collectively they had all done wrong? What about staying on at the job, accepting a few lean years, and providing a great return for taxpayers for bailing you out? Rather than reluctant supplicants, why not be leaders, rallying fellow corporate executives to sacrifice some compensation to keep on some more employees during the downturn, and thus not putting the burden on taxpayers?

If men and women are on their 5th rotations in Iraq, and if 4000 have sacrificed their lives, another 20,000 their limbs and another 100,000+ their intact mental status, one wonders why asking Wall Streeters to sacrifice part of their wallets would be unpatriotic? Perhaps instead of scolding Wall Street for greed, it would be more productive to call them to sacrifice.

There is only one person who can call for that shared sacrifice "from the vasty deep", and have them "come when he does call for them" -- President Barack Obama. He can, and should, use this opportunity to confront the shallow considerations and forge a new, transformational consensus of collective responsibility.

And, if these "leaders" whom Melissa Francis does not want spending their time on airport security lines with us would find in their own exercise of a new patriotism a greater reward than the next $100 million, that experience would indeed "trickle down" to others, and serve as a basis for the president inspiring all of us not only to service, but to sacrifice.

The economic and financial crisis will exact an involuntary toll on all of us. Shared sacrifice will provide more degrees-of-freedom for policymakers, rather than the barriers of self-interest that they now have to consider or determine how to hurdle.

The abyss will not be as deep, the turnaround will occur sooner -- and the country will be better with an enhanced sense of community.

President Obama ought not lose the moment that George Bush squandered. Call us to sacrifice.

We are ready.