Last night, listening to the State of the Union, I felt really proud of my president. I felt inspired. He spoke to me as a member of the Millennial generation.
There seems to be a lot of chatter in politics about how to help out my cohort -- talk of how to save my generation from a dystopian future of mountains of federal debt, an oppressive federal health care system, and illegal immigrants stealing our jobs. Lord knows, if you've caught any of the recent political debates on TV or in Washington, you've heard it too. (See the phrase: "It's for our children and grandchildren!")
Last night, President Obama showed that he understood that this kind of rhetoric is not what my generation needs. Fairness is at the heart of the solution. Millennials know it, and the president gets it. He also understands that fairness is not merely a virtue to aspire to, but a core value that we can tangibly work on -- and one that is at the center of what makes our country as strong and resilient as it is.
But the president was also right when he said that the defining issue of our time is how to keep the American dream alive. I know this to be true. Like the rest of my generation, I've watched friends and family struggle with what can feel at times like a Sisyphean challenge, but is, in fact, a challenge that can be met.
A close friend of mine, I'll call her Sara, found herself in trouble a few years ago. With the help of her extended family, she was able to afford attendance to a fantastic liberal arts school and major in what she loves. As a college student, she was eligible for health care under her parents' plan. Unfortunately, with the onset of the recession, her family was no longer able to support her education and she was forced to drop out of school. Sara moved back home and began searching for a job. No longer a student, she was now ineligible for coverage under her parents' health care plan. She was out of school, out of a job, without health care. At the time, she described to me her health care strategy: "Don't get hit by a bus."
Sara was not alone in her experience, nor in her health care strategy. And this unfortunate experience has become one that is too familiar.
This is the kind of experience that the president had in mind when he said we need to "return to the American values of fair play and shared responsibility." We must ensure that my generation gets a fair shake: a fair chance to get a good education, a good-paying job, and an opportunity like everyone else to support ourselves and our future families without having to adopt a "don't get hit by a bus" strategy.
The 2012 election is already in full swing and the ideological camps are staked out. The pundits and candidates have painted a campaign pitting individual liberty against the shared responsibility and fair deal the president laid out. This is, in fact, a false choice.
As the president said, "No one built this country on their own. This nation is great because we built it together." We were able to do so because individuals made the choice to do great things as a community, as a state, as a nation. The role of government is and should be to, as Lincoln said and the president reminded us, "do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves." Yet there is much that we simply cannot do alone -- much that we must work together to achieve.
Many of the challenges that the president has faced thus far required not individuals, communities, or states to address, but a country as a whole. Because the president understands this reality, 2.5 million young people now have health insurance, thousands of college students are now eligible for more funding through Pell Grants and can more easily pay back their federal loans, tens of thousands of young people are coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, and millions of Americans are finding work and climbing out of the terrible hole they are in.
The president encouraged us to act as a nation so that we can take on these larger questions. Furthermore, the notion that these accomplishments run counter to or limit individual liberty misses the mark. Beyond the fact that health care, college aid, and employment maximize individual liberty, they allow us to begin at the same starting line. It is disappointing, and perhaps surprising, when such an agenda is labeled "extreme" and "pro-poverty," as it was in the formal response to the State of the Union, or dismissed as "a hodgepodge of little ideas" in the Tea Party response.
There is still plenty of progress to be made, and like many Americans and many Millennials, there are policies and goals I have wanted to see politically that haven't been realized. I know we're not there yet.
But I was thrilled to hear the president make proposals that are directed at my generation: doubling the number of federal work-study jobs in the next five years, calling on Congress to send him a law to give young immigrants the chance to earn their citizenship, and reducing the red tape that stifles the creativity of young entrepreneurs.
In 1910, Teddy Roosevelt went to Osawatomie, Kansas, and declared, "I mean not merely that I stand for fair play under the present rules of the games, but that I stand for having those rules changed so as to work for a more substantial equality of opportunity and of reward for equally good service."
Fairness isn't important simply because it speaks to the best of us as people. For after the famously profound "we hold these truth to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," just after the piece about "inalienable rights," a little bit past explaining that among those are "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," there is an oft forgotten piece: "That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men."
Last night, the president clearly and compellingly reminded us of the potential we hold and the great work we stand to accomplish together.
Adin Lenchner is the president of the Wheaton College (MA) Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network chapter and is majoring in political science.