Can Obama Give America’s Soul a Stimulus?

New America Media, Commentary, Andrew Lam Posted: Feb 18, 2009

Editor’s Note: The stimulus package President Obama signed yesterday is designed to revive America’s sagging economy. But what will it do for America’s ailing soul? That’s where the president can really provide direction, if he so chooses. NAM editor Andrew Lam is the author of “Perfume Dreams – Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.”

Barack Obama signed into law the $787 billion stimulus package, giving the moribund U.S. economy a much-needed resuscitation (or so we all hope), and yet there is a larger crisis looming, one that existed long before our economy tanked and has it no guarantee of recovery. Call it the ailing of the American soul.

It’s perhaps fanciful to talk of soul and spirit, even as metaphors, at a time when our country is already shrouded under the dense haze of foreclosures and joblessness. But when a country loses its bearings and sense of direction, its soul, too, falters. If not quantifiable, it is at least discernible: in the form of collective insecurity and loss of confidence, and increasingly, through collective anger, cynicism and shame.

VolunteersOn a grander scale, Americans, I fear, have lost their sense of centrality, sliding irreversibly toward triviality on the world stage. “Americans have always needed to know the point of it all; that has been part of their peculiar national ‘innocence’ and residual Puritan sense of themselves as the new elect of God,” essayist Lance Morrow once noted. “They need to possess an idea of themselves, a myth of themselves, an explanation of themselves.”

Our malaise has its roots in several camps. Our former president began an unjust war in Iraq based on false data about WMDs, resulting in the deaths of so many American soldiers and Iraqi civilians -- the latter we like to understand as “collateral damage” – and in the process he helped deplete us of our national treasures. At home, individualism, coupled with a hyper-consumerist lifestyle, has become an unsustainable American experiment, one that possibly has reached its dead end; and the resulting breakdown of family, and therefore family values, has become a national threat. Furthermore, our sense of insecurity is profound since 9/11, and coupled with a dire economy, it results in rising anti-immigrant sentiments and xenophobia; the battle over whether America will remain a nation of immigrants or a country of singular identity has intensified.

The economy may revive in a few years, and may, in fact, take a different form, but our spirit will lay in the metaphorical dumpster without an articulate vision of a new America. After all, money maybe the measurement of a country’s wealth, but the country’s health is measured by something far larger than economics.

President Barack Obama, perhaps more than any other president since Ronald Reagan, has the ability to correct this by giving the nation a sense of direction. The role of a president in time of crisis, to be sure, is far beyond being a good technocrat. While a good and capable president can deal with the nuts and bolt of the economy, only an inspiring and charismatic leader can deliver his people out of the wasteland.

A major ingredient of the cure lies in the area of “social capital.” Political economist Francis Fukuyama, defined it as “an instantiated informal norm that promotes cooperation between two or more individuals.... they must lead to cooperation in groups and therefore are related to traditional virtues like honesty, the keeping of commitments, reliable performance of duties, reciprocity, and the like. And Berkeley emeritus social science professor Franz Schurmann called it, “A human bonding where work and capital are linked in order to function.” A house can be built cheaply, for instance, when neighbors joined in to help. Hungry folks can be fed more efficiently if volunteers show up at local soup kitchen, and so on.

Or take the case of Henrietta Hughes, a woman who lived in a truck with her grown son. Hughes spoke to Obama at a recent town hall rally in Fort Meyers, Fla. asking for help. The president kissed her, but it was another woman, Chene Thompson, wife of Florida State Rep. Nick Thompson, who stepped up and offered her second home to the woman and her son, free of rent. (Cynics suggested that it was a plant, though no evidence emerged as such, and even if it is, so what?) That’s social capital, in a big, shiny way.

Obama himself said that the stimulus package is not “a panacea.” He is now moving in the right direction by calling for Americans to volunteer and share the burden. In a recent TV broadcast, the president urged Americans to play an active role in healing ourselves: “Prepare a care package for a soldier. Read to a child. Or fix up a local basketball court so the next generation can play and grow. … Log on to to find or create a project near you, then gather some friends and lace 'em up."”

Of course, social capital has always existed, in good times and bad. In immigrant communities, strong social networks are precisely what keep many from dire poverty, and in some cases, from certain catastrophe. Take the Vietnamese community. Long before the government managed to fully mobilize to deal with the Katrina disaster, an intricate social network – Vietnamese language media, Vietnamese-owned shopping malls, Vietnamese Buddhist temples and Christian churches, Vietnamese political organizations – were already providing information and shelter to tens of thousands fleeing Vietnamese from New Orleans and the surrounding region. As far as Dallas and Houston and Los Angeles, volunteers took strangers into their homes while others around the country gave money and sent care packages. Because of communal support, Vietnamese Americans were among the first ethnic groups to rebuild their lives in Louisiana.

obama's stimulus plan Alas, that tight-knit, social infrastructure does not exist on a national scale, and that communal sense is only within ethnic and religious enclaves. How to replicate those ethno-specific social bonds and sense of collective responsibility for the entire country is the trillion-dollar question.

Yet it is a question that needs a good answer. America is now adrift and unmoored. Obama commands the rare thing call public trust and national (and international) good will. But he may risk squandering it if he doesn’t go full speed ahead and articulate a vision of Americans helping themselves and remaking their society. He needs to give equal weight to healing the soul of America as he does to mending America’s purse. And he needs to bring in the social dimension in the remaking of America.

He needs, in other words, to tell us that we all have a stake in committing to protect the wellbeing of our society.

Related Articles:
Historic Stimulus Bill -- Obama's First Big Victory

Can Obama Stave Off Another Great Depression?

Our Man Obama -- The Post-Imperial Presidency

Obamamania Conquers the World

How to Make Wealth

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User Comments

Quang P on Feb 18, 2009 at 20:46:57 said:

Good piece…help yourself, help others…

Aerik Sylvan on Feb 18, 2009 at 10:04:31 said:

Great article - I absolutely agree that America needs to rejuvenate its sense of purpose. However, doing so will take more than a website or celebrity endorsements - it is a culture change, and culture tends to create its own change and is not easily directed.

However, if we are doing to try to steer the collective consciousness of Americans and stir them with a renewed sense of purpose, we should do it with realistic goals and use technology to facilitate things.

The website is a fine thing - but there are already dozens of volunteer opportunity websites out there. Obama is doing a good job of getting attention to the website - being President, he can bring attention to it that would otherwise cost millions in marketing. But there is a place where it is falling short - the success of that one website will not leverage the success of the ones that came before.

We need real innovation in the online tools to enable people to find service opportunities to fit their busy lives. A first step is for all those volunteer opportunities to share their data. From a technical perspective this is trivial - I have even written code that uses existing RSS feeds to aggregate the service opportunities into one place. Those websites can (and should) easily do the same thing. And they should not stop innovating there.

Best Regards,
Aerik Sylvan

Jane B on Feb 18, 2009 at 08:30:39 said:

A very thoughtful article! Social capital is vital to so many areas of life.

Ceci c on Feb 18, 2009 at 08:29:35 said:

Hey Andrew,

Give Obama a break! ;-) He took office less than a month ago and you can't expect him to solve every single problem in his first month.

I think one way to put it is that we are dealing with a patient who is in ICU. He got there after a botched suicide attempt in which he slit open his wrists and nearly bled to death. Doctor Obama is currently busy hooking up the blood transfusions and making sure the patient's vital signs will stabilize.

Eventually, when the patient is out of the woods, he will need therapy, to stabilize his mental state and give him a sense of direction in his life, to prevent further suicide attempts.

Oftentimes during psychotherapy you have to uncover a crucial event in the patient's life that marks the beginning of a series of problems. -- Once this has been accomplished, the healing can begin.

In this sense, isn't the mere fact that Obama was elected a sign that we have begun that healing process? I think in order to find the root of the ailing of America's soul, we also have to investigate how someone like GWB managed to become elected in the first place (and spare me the popular vote debate... ;-)).

Ashed M on Feb 18, 2009 at 08:27:46 said:

I read your piece on Obama. It was excellent. I thought it was a very balanced and even-handed assessment of the various challenges that lie ahead. There are so many high expectations. To a degree, he has been given an impossible mission that you correctly pointed out was caused in large part by 8 years of the administration of GWB (Guns, War and Bombs) and the political, economic and spiritual quagmire that exists as a result.

Fixing the ailing soul of America is an important component in this "recovery" and so far, this aspect has largely been ignored in the media, however, you hit it.

Ironically, because he has tried to do so much so quickly (keep in mind, he hasn't been officially in the office for even 30 days yet) he is in some ways, being judged on a different scale and held to a much higher standard than any elected official that I can remember.

Thus far, he appears to be up for the challenge, but he is going to need everyone to do their part.

Thank you for all of your work in making sure the multi-layered views of America's reality reach the most people possible.




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