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Can Obama bring back The American Dream?

January 19, 2009

by keito

Up until a couple years ago, I always thought of The American Dream as a very romantic, very complex and very real thing.  The Dream has been in question of late, and though the election of Barack Obama was said to give us proof of life I don’t believe The American Dream is really so simple, and I don’t believe that it can really be actualized unless all its parts, and all those people for whom those parts have meaning, are on board.  Can one man possibly bring all of that back?

If I had to sum up The American Dream, I’d say it’s the idea that your success is limited only by your degree of motivation: if you work hard you will always get ahead, and you will always have an opportunity to make it to your goals.  It means that no discriminatory factor, be it race or economic status, can get in your way.  It’s a pretty good dream, and Obama is certainly a success story of that.

I was 21 before I became aware of The American Dream in a very real, very concrete sense, and not just in the vague way that was drilled into me during grammar school.  I became aware of the real Dream because I found myself lacking its graces for the first time, and it was not an easy thing to deal with.

I was studying in Japan then, hitting brick wall after brick wall in my efforts to achieve my personal dream (become a Japanese translator).  Many of the people I encountered, both teachers and administrative personnel at my school, seemed determined to interfere with my progress and that of some other unlucky students, regardless of how hard we’d worked to get to where we were.  It was frustrating, and it was unfair.

In a country where it’s not uncommon to die of exhaustion from overwork, I figured I was suffering from a lack of an idea similar to The American Dream.  I felt that there was too little sense of “hard work should pay off” in Japan, that there were ceilings, glass or otherwise, where ceilings should not be.  This never happened to me in America, I thought.  I convinced myself that it wouldn’t happen in America.

And then, at the end of my studies, I went home.  My personal dream changed very quickly from “become a Japanese translator” to “find a job, any job.”  The economy was tanking and the job market was drying up like the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.  It was not a nice place to be a new grad with little experience.  It still isn’t, as you many of you have already noticed.

With several months of unsuccessful job searching under my belt, I had to ask myself what had happened to my American Dream, knowing full well that it had taken a leave of absence for many of my peers, and for tens of thousands of people across the board besides.  Could The American Dream really still be alive with this many brick walls and glass ceilings thrown up all over the place?

If Ronald Reagan got to say “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” in Berlin, Barack Obama gets to stand in Washington, D.C. and say he’s going to tear down all the walls.  A big one has been torn down already, at least symbolically, by his standing there in the first place.

So let’s reassess the situation.  As it is now, I won’t be inhibited much by being a woman in America, and I probably won’t face much discrimination based on my age or any other immutable qualities that I have.  This is a good thing, and I’m aware of how far the United States has come in this respect, with still less than a 100-year history of women even having the vote.  The “Irish Need Not Apply” signs are long gone, and my Italian relatives that came to America four generations ago were able to better themselves and create a better future for their children.  Heck, a guy from Kenya was able to come to the U.S. and have a son become the 44th president.  A lot of the possibilities wrapped up in the phrase “The American Dream” are still kicking.

Opportunity, then, is key to the perpetuation of The American Dream.  Laws are made to change discrimination, immigration policy opens the door for the kind of betterment immigrant groups see in America, and the education system theoretically gives us the tools we need for success.  That’s the easy, most-clear cut part.  It is the economy and the job market, however, that give us real opportunity, the opportunity to apply what we have learned and received, to get ourselves ahead or to where we want to be; tools are useless without a chance to use them.  You cannot have one half of The American Dream and not the other.

Obama is not Walt Disney, and Washington, D.C. is not Disney World–the President and the place cannot so easily make dreams come true.  But could Obama be the right person to get The American Dream back on track?  With a motto of “Yes we can” I think he has a pretty good shot, because, after opportunity, the second and most elusive ingredient in making The American Dream is hope.  It takes more than an economic stimulus package to instill hope in a population the way that he has.

“When this man swears in on Lincoln’s Bible,” U2’s Bono told Brian Williams on January 17th, while preparing to play during the inaugural festivities, “he proves that America exists.  It’s an astonishing thing because in a way people had ruled out America.  They counted you out.”  I think that for a long time now we’ve been counting ourselves out, too.  And though January 20th, 2009 will stand as a great moment in history, the real history will be if Obama can bring the Dream back home for the rest of us.


MSNBC: The Inauguration: videos of the events surrounding and interviews regarding Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration, including the interview with Bono mentioned in this article

  1. Aaron permalink
    January 19, 2009 9:59 pm

    “With a motto of ‘Yes we can’ I think he has a pretty good shot, because, after opportunity, the second and most elusive ingredient in making The American Dream is hope.”

    The real question is, will he follow up on his motto. A motto by itself is nothing more than a motto.

  2. keito permalink*
    January 19, 2009 10:05 pm

    TRUE. But I definitely think there’s value in the hope that it gives right now, even if it doesn’t pan out.

  3. February 23, 2009 2:16 pm

    Are you discussing “The American Dream” or what the American Dream is to you? The American Dream has always been there. It’s the ability for any individual to have the ability to move up (or in a negative sense downward) in our society. It hasn’t changed in 200+ years. But viewing it that way isn’t realistic. The possibility of societal movement always exists but other factors also apply: effort, intelligence, friends, contacts, leverage, good ol’ fashion luck, etc. Some will argue that in Japan the caste system never really went away and just took another shape in the form of corporations. From your brief statements above I’ll derive that your opinion is of that lot.

    As for the current job market, don’t compare the current situation to the Grapes of Wrath just yet. Yes layoffs and unemployment are widespread. Times are tough right now on most of the lower and middle class. However regardless of the current economy, it has ALWAYS been difficult to get a decent job right out of school unless you have some influential contacts. It took me nearly 6 years out of school to land my first well playing salaried position. It’s a chicken and the egg issue. Employers want experience. You need the job to get the experience. You have to put in extra effort and use every resource at your disposal. This includes temp agencies with contracts to major companies, headhunters, calling some people you met along the way that know someone who knows someone at Company A.

    Obama has his hands full. I have great hope for his presidency but I am also realistic of the hurdles he has to climb. I’m not sure if that’s because he appears destined for greatness or because he will be compared to the flopping number 43 that proceeded him. The truth is that the best he can do in the next 4 years is break even. The banking system is on the verge of nationalization due to 8 years of turning the other way. The previous adminstration was so busy isolating us from every threat that the economic threats of big buisness unchecked were ignored. There is also a little matter of war on two fronts eating up countless dollars. Those shouldn’t be abandoned but need to be completed in a timely manner. If Obama does a fantastic job we will just be getting the economy moving near the end of his first term. It still won’t look pretty at that time.

    Now here is the good news. Democratic president, Democratic House, Democratic Congress. When bills are called for by Obama and created they will pass. There is hope that his administration can get the ship righted.

  4. February 26, 2009 5:44 pm

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment! Are you familiar with the phrase “two Americas” referring to income/economic disparity in the U.S.? I had a lot of that in mind when I wrote this article.

    I’m of the opinion that the recent economic downturn has given a lot of people a taste of what it’s like all the time for the people in what I guess you could call the less fortunate version of America. The American Dream as I defined it here–that your hard work is rewarded with upward mobility–doesn’t seem available in all communities (speaking from experience as well as articles I’ve read over the years). In those communities upward mobility is getting the heck out to someplace where there’s a more even playing field. True, this means there IS somewhere you can move up to, but people should also be able to achieve their individual American dream where their friends and family and lives already are. This is part of what I mean when I say the American Dream needs to be brought to everyone.

    The other part is that for many people right now there is a cap on how far they can get with their hard work. But recessions are personal, too–one of our writers, TasDil, wrote about that before. I’ve gotten a strong response about this article because many people commenting thought things were just fine. For them it probably was: recessions are personal. I was writing with those for whom it’s not okay in mind.

    That being said, I’m rooting for Obama’s success as well! It’s nice to have someone in office who looks at the big picture and thinks progressively. I think both qualities are sorely needed at this time.

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