President Obama has done a great job of balancing candor and hope. It is too early to say much about how he is handling the crisis. He took two positive steps that offered the public some comfort. First, he put in place a stellar economic team right after he was elected. Second, in both word and deed, he has made it clear that solving the economic crisis is not a bi-partisan issue and that he's open to good ideas from anyone.
The more interesting question is: What does Obama want from the American people and what does he promise them? Based on what he has said throughout his campaign and in his inaugural address, I think it can be summed up in a word: Work. Obama has reiterated two related themes in his speeches - work and community service. The first theme resonates with young people. Programs in schools and universities have been cultivating their commitment to service for well over a decade, but it has been a long time since a politician waxed eloquent about work or, to be more precise, the American work ethic.
Obama focuses on the work ethic because it is the cornerstone of the American dream, which says no matter who you are, if you work hard in America, you can get ahead. America has always been a country where "a poor boy can grow up to be president," but not a black one. Obama's presidency opens up the possibility of the American dream for everyone. He did not ask Americans to change or sacrifice to get through the financial crisis, he asked them to do what they do best: apply their energy, creativity, and know-how to their work.
For Obama, the people's job is to work hard and take responsibility, for themselves, their families, and their communities. His job as president is to use government to level the playing field by improving education, health care, etc. so that hard work and ingenuity pays off for everyone, not just a few people at the top.
After decades of prejudice and growing economic inequality, and the recent implosion of a financial system that was fueled by shortsightedness, greed, and a disregard for wellbeing of others, the American dream is in tatters. Obama's "hope" is access to the dream for all of Americans. It's a tall order because success means invigorating and finally fully realizing the great promise that is America.
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