The ‘we’ in ‘Yes we can’

Image from Getty Images via CNN.

President Obama gave his farewell speech last night. The man has a gift for soaring rhetoric.

There were some cavils from the right (and the left), but in general it seemed that most people appreciated the heartfelt eloquence.

One thing that struck me was something the former community organizer emphasized both in 2008 and last night. It was his use of Cesar Chavez’s call to activism, “Si se puede” — “Yes we can.”

I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written: Yes, we can.

“Yes we can” got a lot of mockery during Obama’s administration. The president was ridiculed as the “community organizer in chief,” as if rallying people to a cause was a bad thing. (If anything, Obama probably didn’t do enough rallying, but then, he actually tried to govern, unlike some of his friends in Congress. Old joke: If pro- is the opposite of con-, is Congress the opposite of progress?)

But I always thought the key word in “Yes we can” was we. That is, if you want to effect change, it’s not a one-person job. The Tea Party, with the help of some friends, kept the pressure on legislators to hold the line against Democratic policies. To a lesser extent, Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots also raised issues that continue to reverberate.

I’m reminded of a short essay that appeared in New York magazine last year from Mark Grief. The piece, “A Curious Lag,” noted that Obama had been fairly quiet during the surge in these social movements. But it concluded with a statement that resonated with me:

I don’t blame Obama — imagined once upon a time to be a prophetic president — for his resounding silence. Yet it’s curious effect was primarily to set the stage, through caution and blocked action, for an upsurge of genuine social movements that began from his absences. Perhaps the old community organizer knew that for a real democracy, citizens must do things for themselves.

Democracy is not a spectator sport. We’ll see how much engagement there is over the next four years from the people who got behind “Yes we can.”



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