Speaker after speaker emphasized the role of personal responsibility — as voters, parents and citizens — in turning around the country, healing their communities and beating back a White House takeover by the GOP. “Low expectations is the new racism,” Sharpton warned, calling to mind a popular Republican catchphrase during the Bush years: “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
Holder distilled the message into this slogan as he discussed how citizens should approach the problem of youth violence in many communities: “Take it personally.” President Obama invoked it in relation to the need to better educate our children. “Without parental responsibility, nothing else we do will matter,” he said.
In fact, most of the president’s address — in front of roughly 1,000 NAN members, politicos and celebrities — focused largely on better education as a solution for the problems our nation faces. He cited the Race to the Top grant program, investment in HBCUs and modifications to the federal student-loan program as accomplishments that will help the nation achieve the goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by the end of the decade.
Obama also assured the audience that he feels their pain when it comes to tackling chronic unemployment (“I got my start tackling the problems of joblessness and hopelessness that afflict so many of our cities and rural communities”) or paying off student loans (“I remember the end of the month”). He acknowledged how worn down many of his supporters feel, the kind of frustration that led veteran Velma Hart to say she was tired of defending the president.
“There are times when change can seem painfully slow to come by,” Obama said. “There are times when some of you may have said, I don’t know what Obama is doing there. There are times where you lose hope, times when folks in Washington focus on scoring points instead of solving problems. And some of you may just put up your hands and say, politics is too tough. But in those moments when we start asking ourselves if change is possible, you’ve got to remember what we’ve done together over the past few years.”
He continued, “Remember all the children who will graduate from high school ready for college and beyond. Remember all the Americans who will no longer have to worry about going bankrupt because they got sick. Remember all the families who will no longer be exploited by insurance companies or a credit card company or a mortgage lender.”
The president concluded by invoking the image that inspired so many African-American voters back in 2008: that he is “a living testament that change is possible.” Willing to go back to that place in their hearts for a few moments, the audience gave the president a warm standing ovation as a send-off.
Earvin “Magic” Johnson, one of the honorees at the gala where Obama spoke, was among those left impressed by the day’s proceedings. “How great was it that the president came to speak tonight, and brought so many members of his administration down to the conference?” Johnson remarked to The Root, adding that he looked forward to helping to raise money for the 2012 re-election run.