The Common Good

Call and Response: What the President Did This Week

There is a tradition in the black church named “call and response.” It’s simply the experience of the preacher “calling” and the congregation “responding.” I’ve always loved it. When you’re preaching in a black church, and the congregants begin to actively and vocally respond, your sermon can actually get better, stronger, deeper, and more powerful than it might have been if everyone just sat there. Sermons get interactive. Congregations can be inspired by the preacher — and the other way around. Ideas grow, get taken further, and even develop during and after the sermon. And it can make things change.

Charles Dharapak-Pool/Getty Images
U.S. President Barack Obama at the State of the Union Address on Feb. 12. Charles Dharapak-Pool/Getty Images

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After his first year in office, I sent a letter to President Barack Obama humbly suggesting he needed “the political equivalent of the black church’s call and response.” Just talking to and in Washington was never going to get important things done. Washington just sits there and mostly makes sure that things don’t change — and that the special interests that buy, shape, and control this city usually have their way. (That private letter to the president will be published for the first time in my new book about the common good coming out in April.)

I recalled something Obama said right after the 2008 election — that he would need “the wind of a movement at my back” to get anything really important done. He would have to go over the heads of Washington, to speak directly to the people that had elected him and also those who didn’t. He would have to have public debates about the common good and not just debate in Washington. 

I saw him do that in this week’s State of the Union speech. Barack Obama was speaking over the heads of the senators and members of Congress — who were just sitting there, standing up only in partisan moments — right to the 33 million people who were watching. He was making his case to the American people, appealing to public opinion on behalf of things he wants to do — instead of just reaching out to Washington, as many pundits said he ought to do. 

In Washington, the Congressional debate is about debt, deficits, spending, and taxes, and almost nothing else. Many Americans, including many of us in the faith community, agree that massive debts are a moral issue and not something we want to leave for our children. But most Americans also believe that how you deal with deficits is a moral issue. And they don’t believe, as the deficit cutters in Washington often say, “with trillions and trillions of dollars in debt, it is time to” cut most of the programs that help poor and vulnerable people. That is what the budget proposals of the deficit hawks would do, even if they don’t admit it. We believe that is immoral, especially when the same people still defend grossly unfair tax loopholes and benefits for the wealthiest and best connected. They oppose more revenue from wealthiest — those special interests who have bought Washington — and never show the courage to take on the governments worst waste, fraud, and abuse in the Pentagon’s massive spending. What Washington never really admits is how it helps those at the top of the economic order much more than those at the bottom — and that we need a government that "works on behalf of the many, and not just the few."

Let’s start that conversation. 

The president also said what most Americans know is true — that rising healthcare costs and retiring baby boomer needs will require serious reforms of our healthcare system and crucial programs like Medicare. There are special interests in Washington that don’t ever want to admit that or accept the changes we will need while still protecting seniors in need. 

What most Americans think makes sense is a balanced approach between increased revenues and careful spending cuts. Most Americans think that the political brinksmanship of moving “from one manufactured crisis to the next” is not the way to find a responsible and balanced path to fiscal sustainability — that deficit reduction alone is not a plan for economic growth. 

President Obama also spoke the “p” words that people in Washington almost never want to talk about — “poverty” and “poor” people and children. With more people in poverty than in the last 50 years and economic inequality at record high levels, it is time to talk about it. It’s time for the president to say that no one who works full time in the wealthiest nation on earth should have to live in poverty; they ought to have a living wage. Most Americans believe that. 

They also believe, as virtually all our educators do, that quality preschool should be available to every child in America if we want stable and successful families. 

What especially resonated with many people in the president’s speech is that our “North Star” should be creating more good paying jobs in America, and helping to educate and train people for them. 

The president said what most Americans believe — that we should not reduce the deficit by cutting crucial investments in education, infrastructure, science, medical health, clean energy, or programs for the most vulnerable — while enabling the richest to become even wealthier than they have been in years. And whoever is willing to protect the poor and vulnerable in our fiscal debates and commit to overcome poverty with new opportunities will find the faith community at their back, at their front, and on both their sides.

Most Americans now believe that the time has come to pass comprehensive immigration reform that includes a responsible path to earned citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants who have lived and worked here responsibly for decades. The faith community, in particular, has come to believe this is a moral and biblical issue — to “welcome the stranger” among us. Because of the outside pressure of the faith community, the law-enforcement community, and the business community, even Washington is finally coming to admit that our broken immigration system needs to be fixed.  The biggest moment of bipartisanship was exhibited by standing ovation when the president called for it Tuesday night. 

Outside pressure is the only way to change Washington’s decisions, whether is it the historic need to deal with climate change, or change our nation’s failed war policies, or finally address the issue that became the most emotional moment of the president’s Tuesday night speech — America’s gun violence. 

The president said the victims of gun violence “deserve a vote” on necessary and commonsense gun laws, and that the Washington politicians deserve accountability for their votes. Public opinion is clearly for such reforms, while those who have bought Congress, are now preventing public opinion from dealing with our horrible national gun violence.

So it’s a good thing that the president is ready to issue “calls” to the American people, over the heads of the Washington politicians and pundits.

It’s time for our response.

Jim Wallis is the author of the forthcoming book, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good, is set to release in April. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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