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Obama’s Siren Song of … Sacrifice?

• February 06, 2009 • 5:18 PM

Calls to work together for the common good during the current crises have been emanating at breakneck pace from the Obama administration. Academics discuss how to get the results of a Roosevelt, and not a Carter.

In his inaugural address, John F. Kennedy memorably declared, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” While that eloquent appeal is often cited, its popularity masks the fact that since Franklin Roosevelt, America’s national leaders have been either reluctant to ask citizens to sacrifice for the greater good or ineffective when they did so.

For those who lived through the 1970s, the idea of setting aside self-interest to address the needs of the nation conjures up images of a sweater-clad Jimmy Carter. In a televised address from a chilly Oval Office, he told us we had become dangerously over reliant on foreign energy sources and asked us to turn down the thermostat. Instead, we voted him out of office.

Now comes Barack Obama. On the campaign trail and in his inaugural address, the new president has continually championed the concept of sacrifice. He has warned that tough choices lie ahead, noting that Americans can no longer defer dealing with issues ranging from underfunded entitlements to climate change. He told the huge crowd that witnessed him taking the oath of office that we are entering “a new era of responsibility.”

It’s all quite stirring, if somewhat strange; we have become accustomed to politicians flattering us to win our votes. But once President Obama starts getting specific — say, informing the country that the retirement age will have to increase to protect Social Security, or insisting drivers give up their gas guzzlers to protect the environment — will Americans really be responsive? Miller-McCune.com posed that question to thoughtful academics from a variety of disciplines and discovered a surprising amount of optimism.

“I think his chances are very good,” said Dan McAdams, a research psychologist at Northwestern University. “Americans have typically responded well to appeals for sacrifice, especially during a time of national crisis and especially when the appeal has the imprimatur of a leader who appears to be sincere and committed to solving the problems at hand.”

McAdams’ primary area of research is on “generativity,” a term coined by psychologist Erik Erikson to describe concern for, and commitment to, promoting the well-being of future generations. His 15 years of research, summarized in his award-winning book The Redemptive Self, reveal that “the idea of transforming suffering into gain” is a common thread in the life stories of socially conscious Americans.

“Despite some claims that many Americans are apathetic and lack a commitment to the common good, surveys and psychological studies of students and adults show that many people value community service and want to find ways to make a positive difference in their families, neighborhood and society writ large,” he said. “And among the people I tend to study —midlife American adults — there is a tremendous pent-up need to craft a generative legacy of the self for future generations.

“You don’t have to be totally altruistic; you don’t have to be a ‘do-gooder.’ Most adults want to make a positive difference in the world; indeed, they see it as in their own best interest to do so, and in the interests of their children and future generations.”

In the Same Boat As Tide Goes Out
How can Obama tap into that innate desire to make a difference? McAdams suggested his appeal should take the form of “a sacrifice that everybody will share. It won’t work if some people end up shouldering all the burden — as seems, unfortunately, to be the case, for example, with the Iraq War. People need to feel that they are in this together — young and old, black and white, rich and struggling.

“Of course, a universal appeal is an unrealizable goal. But he should strive to be as inclusive as possible. This is why I think it is a good idea that he is trying to solicit as much support as he can from Republicans. Even if most of them don’t support him, the public will see that he is trying to rally everybody together.”

Yale University psychologist Jack Dovidio has done considerable research on altruistic behavior. He, too, is optimistic about Obama’s chances, in large part because the economic meltdown is hitting home for so many people.

“In a lot of economic downturns, it’s often the less-well-educated and the poorer who get laid off,” he noted. “Today, it’s Microsoft employees and Wall Street employees who had been making very healthy salaries. It’s cutting across the socioeconomic strata. So it’s easy to visualize that any one of us could be in that situation.

“When you feel a common threat, your group identity becomes really strong and salient to you. You begin to see yourself a little bit more in interchangeable ways with other people. This makes you much more sensitive to threats to other people and much more willing to sacrifice.”

Americans, like all people, “aren’t really good at long-term thinking,” Dovidio said, noting the continuing difficulty environmentalists are having in getting us to care about climate change. “We’re much better at responding to immediate visual images.”

Today, we are seeing those images in the shape of boarded-up stores and “for sale” signs on foreclosed homes. These everyday reminders of our vulnerability, “coupled with the fact Obama has gotten us thinking about ourselves as collectively interdependent, potentially leads us to a level of unity we haven’t seen in a long, long time,” he said.

What practical effects could emerge from that sort of unity? For one thing, we might be willing to spend our own money to ensure everyone has health insurance.

In 2004, a research team based at the University of Michigan recruited 322 people to play a board game in which they designed health plans for themselves and their community. At the beginning of the game, just over half of the players said they’d set aside a small percentage of their own family’s insurance spending to help fund coverage for the uninsured. The majority of them chose to limit this coverage to children.

As the game progressed, groups of eight to 15 players were formed to design community-wide health plans. While there was considerable internal debate, in the end every group decided to cover the uninsured in some way, and three-quarters chose to cover adults as well as minors.

“People help others, or become willing to give up something for the sake of others, for lots of complicated reasons,” said Susan Goold, director of the university’s bioethics program and lead author of the study. “Sometimes it’s enlightened self-interest.”

Her experiment suggests people can make wise decisions on tough issues if the conversation is structured intelligently — that is, if they are forced to face the fact that any plan involves certain tradeoffs. “You want to educate and inform the public, but also get their input, their wisdom,” she insisted. “The public is pretty damn smart. A lot of people understand that our health care system hurts us not only physically but economically, and reforming it — like investing in education — will pay off in the long-term.”

The trick is getting people to think in long-range terms, as well to recognize their own vulnerability. The health care board game proved to be an effective catalyst for that type of analysis.

“Many of these employed, mostly well-off people thought, ‘It could happen to me,’” she said. “They talked about being uninsured themselves in the past, or about people they knew who didn’t have insurance.” While the issue of personal responsibility did come up in the discussions, most people ultimately decided universal coverage “was like insuring themselves against becoming uninsured.”

Being Good Feels Good
Or perhaps they simply liked the way they felt when they acted in an altruistic manner. The pleasure we receive from giving is very real, according to two University of Oregon researchers, psychologist Ulrich Mayr and economist Bill Harbaugh. Together, they have been studying the brain activity of people who are helping others.

“In principle, we are wired to do good,” Mayr said. “It makes people feel good to see somebody else better off. In principle, this feeling can drive action. So Obama has something to work with.”

Some participants’ reward centers fired more robustly than others, which led Mayr and Harbaugh to classify them as either altruists or egoists. Mayr is quick to add, however, that this is not a static state; rather, people might be more altruistic or egoistic depending upon their life circumstances at the moment. In addition, there seems to be a general evolution from egotism to altruism as we age.

Mayr notes that in their experiments, “You knew where your money went to and what the overhead was. In our case, it was a local food bank. Everyone likes them; everyone knows they’re efficient. It’s a fair process. No money gets siphoned off into hidden channels and reappears in somebody else’s pocket.

“We haven’t investigated directly (whether this sort of transparency encourages giving behavior), but other people have looked at these kinds of things. They found the impression that matters are handled in a just, open, fair manner is absolutely critical. Research shows that goodwill breaks down very quickly as soon as people sense there are a significant numbers of free riders in the system.”

Jed Purdy, a visiting professor at Yale Law School who has written extensively on what it means to be an American, also recognizes the “free rider” problem. “I think that we can be moved to contribute if (1) we can see it in this way, and (2) we believe others will be moved to act as well, so we aren’t just being suckers by doing our part,” he says.

He prefers the term “contribute” to “sacrifice,” “because it emphasizes what we’re adding to, rather than what we’re giving up. I think Obama has been able to convey the idea that contributing to a larger project makes us bigger people.”

Learning From Past Administrations
In his soon-to-be-published book A Tolerable Anarchy: Rebels, Reactionaries and the Making of American Freedom, Purdy traces an intriguing shift in language in major presidential addresses: from an emphasis on civic dignity and the common good to a focus on personal virtue and responsibility. (He spots the shift in Nixon’s speeches, then finds it fully articulated in Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric). He notes that Obama’s language tacks back to the tone of FDR, in that it mixes a sense of inspiration with an emphasis on hard work and collective effort.

He notes that Roosevelt effectively used war metaphors to encourage Americans to join together in common purpose, even before the onset of World War II. Historian Gil Troy of McGill University in Montreal also finds that instructive, noting that gearing people up for a metaphorical war can be an effective way of asking them to sacrifice.

In recent decades, “We’ve had an unfortunate tradition for decades of presidents soothing us,” he said. “We have sort of an addiction to having our cake and eat it too. Clearly Bush missed the moment after 9/11. That was a time when Americans might have been willing to give something up. The nation was ready to take collective action.

“Now, Obama has an opportunity to succeed where Bush failed. There’s nothing like a financial meltdown to sober people up! You don’t have an enemy like after 9/11, but you have more pinched circumstances. Obama’s sense prior to the crisis was that Americans were yearning for this sense of community, sense of engagement. Now he may have the conditions that will allow him to achieve that.

“In Obama’s inaugural address, he said America is a place where people are willing to work fewer hours so their friend won’t lose their job. That was a very explicit call to sacrifice — much more explicit than Kennedy’s ‘Ask not what your country can do for you.’ We haven’t had that kind of specifics since Franklin Roosevelt.”

Well, we did have Jimmy Carter, whose failed presidency coincides with Obama’s coming of age. Troy is convinced the new president has learned from his peanut-farming predecessor’s missteps.

“Carter’s mistake was his rhetoric of sacrifice was disconnected from a sense of hope,” he says. “He allowed himself to be tagged as the man of malaise. He was preaching the gospel of limits. What FDR did that Carter missed was preach a gospel of self-sacrifice in the context of ultimate salvation.

“FDR’s message was we’re rolling up our sleeves and making sacrifices because we’re going to have a better tomorrow. With Jimmy Carter, you got the sense that we were being asked to put on another sweater, but we would still be cold.”

In contrast, Obama is overtly linking the need to sacrifice with the hope of a better future. If he can continue that balancing act, Troy believes people just may respond. “Americans don’t want to be told we are entering an age of limits,” he said. “We want to be a nation of limitless hope. That’s in the American DNA.”

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Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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