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Robert Creamer

Robert Creamer

Posted February 25, 2009 | 10:06 AM (EST)

Obama and the Revival of Responsibility


In his speech last night, Barack Obama symbolically turned the page on eight years of irresponsibility and recklessness and called on Americans to take responsibility for themselves, for others, and for the future of the planet.

The radical-conservative Republicans of the Bush era paraded around dressed in a cloak of oh so responsible "fiscal rectitude" -- berating progressives as "reckless tax-and-spenders." But in reality they were more like children playing dress up in adult clothes.

They pretended to be your sober, tight-fisted grandfather but all the while they behaved like rich teenagers who came into their inheritance to early and squandered it on fast cars, and wild parties.

Obama reminded America that his predecessors had squandered a fiscal surplus to enrich the wealthiest two percent of Americans with tax breaks. They refused to invest in the education and health care of our children. They endangered the future of our climate and planet to allow energy companies to engorge themselves with profit. And they jeopardized the peace of the world to satisfy their longing for empire.

They let Wall Street bankers create a speculative bubble of trillions of dollars of artificial wealth and drain away the buying power of ordinary Americans that is necessary to sustain long term economic growth.

They ignored the warning signs that the economic hour was late, and partied on like frat boys who decided to blow off the final exam. And when the final exam finally came, they failed.

Last night Barack Obama spoke to Americans as adults. He told America that responsibility for others is not just a stupid value for chumps -- but the definition of begin a grown-up. He told us that the era of "where's mine" -- where success is defined by seven-figures salaries and five-thousand dollar designer suits -- is over. He challenged America to once again take charge of our futures and fulfill our potential -- to invest in future generations. And he pledged to lead us there.

Last week I was in Jordan and went to Mount Nebo, where Moses first looked over the River Jordan and saw the Promised Land. As we all know, Moses never made it to the Promised Land himself, but he led his people there and built the foundation for the success of children he would never know.

Someone once said that responsibility is about planting trees under which you will never personally sit.

Responsibility is one of the cornerstones of progressive values. And it is critical to our success -- especially in the new globalized world where events everywhere directly affect our lives.

The idea that we are responsible for each other is embedded in all of the great religions -- in the golden rule: "love they neighbor as thyself." But it's really a relatively new idea.

Evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond' study of human development, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, points out that the first question for a typical member of one band of hunter-gatherers, when he encountered a member of another band, was why he should not kill them on the spot.

The universality of the ethical demand to "love thy neighbor as thyself" is a very recent development in human evolution. It has emerged only over the last several thousand years of our approximately seven million years of evolutionary history. Previously, most behavior involving moral content pertained only to members of our own band, tribe or ethnic group.

At this point in history, responsibility for others is not some "soft" or "utopian" value, it is critical to our success and survival on our increasingly crowded planet. More than that, it's the key that will both prevent us from destroying ourselves -- and can unlock exponentially expanding human possibility in the 21st century.

And of course when you say it to people -- when you call on their best instincts instead of pandering to their selfishness and prejudice -- people know that you're right. They instinctively respond when they are called upon to be the best they can be; when -- as Barack Obama did last night -- they are addressed as adults and inspired by hope.

As millions of people came to Washington to participate in Barack Obama's inaugural celebration the nation was swept by a rebirth of true patriotism -- not xenophobia but pride in what America could be once again.

Last night Barack Obama honored a bank president who gave his $60 million bonus to all of his employees and retirees. He honored a young woman who wrote Congress to ask them for help for her school so that she and here classmates could get a descent education and make a contribution to our society -- who said that she was not "a quitter."

After a long absence, America once again has national leadership that truly believes in responsibility. Historians will look back on Obama's speech last night as one of the founding documents of a new progressive era.


Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist and author of the recent book: "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," available on amazon.com.