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Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty ImagesPresident
Obama greets diners at Reid's House Restaurant in Reidsville, N.C.,
last fall. While there, he talked to a college student about the
importance of education — one of the ideas Obama comes back to often.
NPR is examining what the American dream means to our culture, our economy and our politics. On Morning Edition, we'll explore what Republicans think of the American dream. In this installment, the view from President Obama.
American dream — the idea that in this country anyone can rise from
humble beginnings and succeed — is deeply woven into our national
psyche. It's a promise that draws immigrants to our shores. And it's a
staple on the campaign trail.
campaign-style bus tour last fall, rolling through cotton fields and
tobacco farms, President Obama stopped for a cheeseburger and sweet tea
in the town of Reidsville, N.C. Shaking hands with a crowd outside the
restaurant, Obama paused to offer some fatherly advice to college
student Desmond McCowan.
"Basically, he told
me, be sure I graduated. Stay in school and be sure I graduated,"
McCowan said. "It's one thing when your parents tell you, but when the
president tells you ... I'm touched. I'm touched right now."
hard," said the president, whose own mother used to wake him up early
to do just that. The idea that hard work and education pays off is one
that Obama often conveys, in words and through his own biography.
A Living Example
the moment he burst on the national scene at the 2004 Democratic
convention, Obama has served as a living example of the American dream —
proof that in this country anyone can succeed, even a skinny black kid
with a funny name.
"I stand here knowing that
my story is part of the larger American story. That I owe a debt to all
of those who came before me," he said. "And that in no other country on
Earth is my story even possible."
Obama was quick to add that his story is not one of solo success.
our famous individualism," he said, "there's another ingredient in the
American saga — a belief that we're all connected as one people."
made that point again this year in a speech at the University of
Michigan. "Everybody here is only here because somebody somewhere down
the road decided, we're going to think not just about ourselves but
about the future. We've got responsibilities — yes to ourselves, but
also to each other."
The Role Of Government
This idea of the American dream as a collective enterprise is what sets Democrats apart from Republicans.
you look at three basic values that underpin the American dream," says
John Kenneth White, a political scientist and editor of The American Dream in the 21st Century, "they really are freedom, individual rights — which are closely tied to that — and equality of opportunity."
Republicans typically stress freedom, White says, and they tend to see government as a likely impediment.
Democrats like Obama focus on opportunity, and they see a vital role for government.
who has a great idea in selling a great product or service, we want
them to get rich. That's great. But we also want to make sure that we as
a society are investing in that young kid who comes from a poor family
who has incredible talent and might be able to get rich as well," Obama
has said. "And that means we've got to build good schools. And we've got
to make sure that that child can go to college."
argues that by training workers, building highways and creating a
safety net that enables risk-taking, government helps the free market
'Opportunity To Everybody'
Grisby, who attended an Obama rally in Virginia this month, likes the
idea of the American dream as a cooperative effort.
don't believe anyone is self-made. God put us here. Why not teach,
especially these young people, how they can make a better life for
themselves?" she says. "Especially if they were not born in the 1
Obama seems mindful that his own
story could have turned out differently, and he's been determined to
hold doors open for others. He says doing so is good for the country.
think the history of the United States, the reason we became an
economic superpower is because, not always perfectly, not always
consistently, but better than any other country on Earth, we were able
to give opportunity to everybody," he said. "That's what the American
dream was all about."
Obama says preserving
that dream requires a balancing act between self-interest and community.
Success is not an entitlement in his book. But neither is it a reward
for individual effort alone.