Can the Modern Politician Call Us to “Place Our Collective Shoulder to the Wheel”?

Whom do we remember as our greatest presidents? Often, the ones who call us to act on a higher plane, to be more than we have been. Some leaders stand out in every list: Washington, who led us through a treacherous beginning; Lincoln, who saved the nation; and FDR, who led us against perhaps the most evil axis of nations in history. But let’s add others: Truman, with his leadership on the Marshall Plan and postwar communist containment; and Jefferson, with the purchase of the Louisiana Territory.

Similarly, when we think about which rhetoric inspires us, we don’t usually quote the language used to back the latest farm bill or tax break. Ever undergo the emotional transition at the Lincoln memorial from feeling touristy and tepid outside this behemoth boulder building, to turning teary as you read the second inaugural address? You may not have noticed, but one line in that address mentions a new government program:

 Let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Did you find it? Look again at how it’s worded. Lincoln didn’t promise that he would do something for widows and orphans; he called us to add that task to the many sacrifices we still needed to make.

Now consider President Obama’s State of the Union address. I don’t mean to pick on it, as it largely followed the format to which for several decades we have become accustomed. Its emotional high point wasn’t when he listed all his proposals but, at the end, when he extolled the sacrifices of Army Ranger Cory Remsburg.

Men and women like Cory remind us that America has never come easy. Our freedom, our democracy, has never been easy. Sometimes we stumble; we make mistakes; we get frustrated or discouraged. But for more than two hundred years, we have put those things aside and placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress—to create and build and expand the possibilities of individual achievement; to free other nations from tyranny and fear; to promote justice, and fairness, and equality under the law, so that the words set to paper by our founders are made real for every citizen.

Remsburg, by the way, was on this tenth tour of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, when his life underwent dramatic upheaval.

Now consider what the president and his Republican counterparts, in their follow-up addresses, ask of us. For the most part, to accept more goodies: more benefits or fewer taxes somehow paid for by someone else. Fortunately, they tell us, we don’t have to put our shoulder to the wheel of progress; we only need to move aside others who block it from rolling forward.

Therein lies a great tragedy of politics and one of the greatest threats to the functioning of democratic government: politicians’ need to tell us about all the great things they will do for us, usually combined with their plodding efforts to tell us that the source of our nation’s problems is those who don’t agree with us. And the great focus they place on “I,” as in I—not you, not we—am going to make all these good things happen. Try to find “I” in Lincoln’s great addresses.

Yes, I recognize that few politicians can win elections without playing this game. Still, I don’t find myself inspired by the tax cuts or extra government benefits I might receive. I’m not moved by the call for others to sacrifice for me. I’m not motivated to do more for posterity by contemplating what you should be doing.

I’m not suggesting that sacrifice has merit in and of itself. When we make such efforts, we do so because we expect that society will benefit in the long run. But not now, when we must give up our time or energy or resources at building that better world. And not necessarily us.

One of the most popular Old Testament verses, sung and read repeatedly in churches and synagogues, comes from the most quoted of all of the Hebrew prophets:

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8).

Even if we continually vote out of office any politician who asks us to sacrifice something to make the world a bit better off, we still want to be called. We want collectively to put our shoulder to the wheel. Thanks, Cory. I hope I have half the courage in dealing with these mundane issues that you display in dealing with life and death.


4 Comments on “Can the Modern Politician Call Us to “Place Our Collective Shoulder to the Wheel”?”

  1. Philip W says:

    Just to make sure you know that someone is actually thinking about what you say, you should know that “I” appears 44 times in Lincoln’s First Inaugural: http://www.bartleby.com/124/pres31.html

    Nice post otherwise.

  2. Robert Tannenwald says:

    And thanks, Gene, for your continuously inspiring commentary, books, articles, and speeches.

  3. bill white says:

    So true. The President noted that the deficit was being reduced at a faster rate than at any time since the end of WWII. Of course, the debt-financed share of spending in 2009-2011 was equivalent to that in 1944-1945, so one would expect it to decline. In the five years after WWII Truman submitted budgets that were balanced or had a surplus. Senator Taft and others proposed to cut federal spending when they proposed tax cuts, in order to maintain balance and avoid mortgaging the future of the generation that would be known as Baby Boomers. What seems like common sense then now is considered courage.

  4. […] That bitter pill is waiting. In the latest installment of their regular fiscal update, TPC’s Bill Gale and Alan Auerbach of UC Berkeley find some short-term improvement in the nation’s fiscal health, but conclude long-term deficits remain an ongoing problem.  The cure remains, as ever, lower  spending or higher  taxes—also known as: shared sacrifice. […]


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.