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. Instead, we have become spectators to the appalling sideshow that is Congress. We are cynical because the health-care debate seems to have been conducted with as much seriousness as the Tonight Show imbroglio. We want to serve but don't know how. However impressive the numbers are in the aggregate, texting $10 to the Red Cross seems pitifully small. Opportunities for service do exist, but they are limited or underutilized. The military, the Peace Corps, Teach for America, and such organizations and opportunities are noble callings, but viable for only a few. Obama should expand and aggressively publicize FEMA's Citizen Corps, which coordinates and trains citizens in first-aid and emergency skills to help communities prepare for natural disasters, terrorist attacks, crime, and other hazards. He should also consider creating a Relief Corps, like the National Guard without any military association. Members would spend a weekend every month or two training in EMT, triage, and disaster-relief coordination, then deploy in the event of natural disasters at home and around the world. Such an organization would help to relieve the burdens of an already hobbled military while giving a boost to our image abroad.
At the very least, the president should connect personal responsibility to social responsibility. He should be honest that service isn't always heroic (taxes included). Compromise does not mean splitting the difference. It means giving up something to get something better. Obama is certainly not the first president to patronize the public. But young people are cynical because they thought he might be the first to cut through the cant. He should spend less time listening to his political advisers, who are frozen by the fear of alienating interest groups, and give it to us straight.
Ask more of us, Mr. President. You might be surprised by what we will give.