News & Politics

We Need Obama to Help Heal the American Soul

The economy may revive in a few years, but our spirit will falter without a big picture for what we want our country to look like.


Barack Obama signed into law the $787 billion stimulus package, giving the moribund U.S. economy a much-needed resuscitation (or so we all hope), and yet there is a larger crisis looming, one that existed long before our economy tanked and has it no guarantee of recovery. Call it the ailing of the American soul.

It's perhaps fanciful to talk of soul and spirit, even as metaphors, at a time when our country is already shrouded under the dense haze of foreclosures and joblessness. But when a country loses its bearings and sense of direction, its soul, too, falters. If not quantifiable, it is at least discernible: in the form of collective insecurity and loss of confidence, and increasingly, through collective anger, cynicism and shame.

On a grander scale, Americans, I fear, have lost their sense of centrality, sliding irreversibly toward triviality on the world stage. "Americans have always needed to know the point of it all; that has been part of their peculiar national ‘innocence' and residual Puritan sense of themselves as the new elect of God," essayist Lance Morrow once noted. "They need to possess an idea of themselves, a myth of themselves, an explanation of themselves."

Our malaise has its roots in several camps. Our former president began an unjust war in Iraq based on false data about WMDs, resulting in the deaths of so many American soldiers and Iraqi civilians -- the latter we like to understand as "collateral damage" – and in the process he helped deplete us of our national treasures. At home, individualism, coupled with a hyper-consumerist lifestyle, has become an unsustainable American experiment, one that possibly has reached its dead end; and the resulting breakdown of family, and therefore family values, has become a national threat. Furthermore, our sense of insecurity is profound since 9/11, and coupled with a dire economy, it results in rising anti-immigrant sentiments and xenophobia; the battle over whether America will remain a nation of immigrants or a country of singular identity has intensified.

The economy may revive in a few years, and may, in fact, take a different form, but our spirit will lay in the metaphorical dumpster without an articulate vision of a new America. After all, money maybe the measurement of a country's wealth, but the country's health is measured by something far larger than economics.

President Barack Obama, perhaps more than any other president since Ronald Reagan, has the ability to correct this by giving the nation a sense of direction. The role of a president in time of crisis, to be sure, is far beyond being a good technocrat. While a good and capable president can deal with the nuts and bolt of the economy, only an inspiring and charismatic leader can deliver his people out of the wasteland.

A major ingredient of the cure lies in the area of "social capital." Political economist Francis Fukuyama, defined it as "an instantiated informal norm that promotes cooperation between two or more individuals.... they must lead to cooperation in groups and therefore are related to traditional virtues like honesty, the keeping of commitments, reliable performance of duties, reciprocity, and the like. And Berkeley emeritus social science professor Franz Schurmann called it, "A human bonding where work and capital are linked in order to function." A house can be built cheaply, for instance, when neighbors joined in to help. Hungry folks can be fed more efficiently if volunteers show up at local soup kitchen, and so on.

Or take the case of Henrietta Hughes, a woman who lived in a truck with her grown son. Hughes spoke to Obama at a recent town hall rally in Fort Meyers, Fla. asking for help. The president kissed her, but it was another woman, Chene Thompson, wife of Florida State Rep. Nick Thompson, who stepped up and offered her second home to the woman and her son, free of rent. (Cynics suggested that it was a plant, though no evidence emerged as such, and even if it is, so what?) That's social capital, in a big, shiny way.

Obama himself said that the stimulus package is not "a panacea." He is now moving in the right direction by calling for Americans to volunteer and share the burden. In a recent TV broadcast, the president urged Americans to play an active role in healing ourselves: "Prepare a care package for a soldier. Read to a child. Or fix up a local basketball court so the next generation can play and grow. … Log on to USAService.org to find or create a project near you, then gather some friends and lace 'em up.""

Of course, social capital has always existed, in good times and bad. In immigrant communities, strong social networks are precisely what keep many from dire poverty, and in some cases, from certain catastrophe. Take the Vietnamese community. Long before the government managed to fully mobilize to deal with the Katrina disaster, an intricate social network – Vietnamese language media, Vietnamese-owned shopping malls, Vietnamese Buddhist temples and Christian churches, Vietnamese political organizations – were already providing information and shelter to tens of thousands fleeing Vietnamese from New Orleans and the surrounding region. As far as Dallas and Houston and Los Angeles, volunteers took strangers into their homes while others around the country gave money and sent care packages. Because of communal support, Vietnamese Americans were among the first ethnic groups to rebuild their lives in Louisiana.

Alas, that tight-knit, social infrastructure does not exist on a national scale, and that communal sense is only within ethnic and religious enclaves. How to replicate those ethno-specific social bonds and sense of collective responsibility for the entire country is the trillion-dollar question.

Yet it is a question that needs a good answer. America is now adrift and unmoored. Obama commands the rare thing call public trust and national (and international) good will. But he may risk squandering it if he doesn't go full speed ahead and articulate a vision of Americans helping themselves and remaking their society. He needs to give equal weight to healing the soul of America as he does to mending America's purse. And he needs to bring in the social dimension in the remaking of America.

He needs, in other words, to tell us that we all have a stake in committing to protect the wellbeing of our society.

NAM editor Andrew Lam is the author of "Perfume Dreams – Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora."