Ask More of Us, Mr. President

Article excerpt

Byline: Louisa Thomas

The man who mobilized a generation must now issue marching orders.

I watched President Obama's inauguration on my laptop, sharing a pair of earphones with a friend--one bud in my right ear, the other in her left. Like so many people, those who had voted for Obama and those who hadn't, we had great expectations that day. Never in my lifetime (I was 27) had public service had such allure (the ratio of applicants to available positions in the administration was rumored to be a hundred to one). Yet even as we watched the video staggering over the faulty wireless connection, my friend and I warned each other that our hopes for the new administration were too high. Obama was inheriting two botched wars, an amorphous and ever-present terrorist threat, and the worst economic crisis in decades. It does not surprise me that we asked too much of him in his first year. What does surprise me is that Obama did not ask enough of us.

At some point in the past 30 or 40 years, politicians lost the nerve to ask much of people. I am not sure how we got from Kennedy's "ask not" to a political culture where the word "tax" has become a hex but "benefit" a self-evident right. No politician wants to admit that real reform requires real sacrifice. Obama promised to be different, and in important ways he is. He has conducted himself with dignity, intelligence, and sympathy while staving off another Great Depression and keeping the lid, so far, on potential eruptions around the world. He has shown us that he is a good listener and reasonable, unlike so many of his detractors. But, like most politicians, he appears to assume that the public is incapable or unwilling to take on the challenges that real reform demands. He wants to expand health care to 30 million Americans but reassures people that he won't touch theirs. He proposes withdrawing from Afghanistan by increasing troop levels. It's no wonder that people suspect the government is not being honest, or that there is so much voter anger.

Obama's younger supporters are not angry so much as disappointed. During his campaign he mobilized a generation that had been distinguished by apathy, but he has not capitalized on the energy, desire, and will of all those people who came to Washington to witness his oath of office, or who talked--as my friend and I did that day--about connecting their ambitions to the public good. …