Tuesday night, President Obama declared to the nation, “It is you, our citizens, who make the state of our union strong.”
The President’s word choice — not “residents,” not “people,” but “citizens” — was no rhetorical flourish. In fact, the President returned to this theme later in the speech, extolling “the spirit of citizenship — the recognition that through hard work and responsibility, we can pursue our individual dreams, but still come together as one American family to make sure the next generation can pursue its dreams as well.”
While fulfilling his constitutional duty to “from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union,” Obama also reminded the nation of the obligations of citizenship. He reminded us that citizenship is not a commitment that arises only from time to time; rather, it is a commitment that should extend to every interaction with our neighbors, to every sector of our nation.
Since ancient Greece, the concept of citizenship has been tied to procedural equality, the idea that each citizen should have an equal opportunity to contribute to the betterment of society. While the Greeks excluded many of their people from the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship, we open citizenship to all. But we must do a better job providing equal opportunities to all citizens. One cannot wholly realize the promise of citizenship without an education, a job, the right to vote, access to health care and a healthy planet.
The President proposed specific ways to increase economic opportunities for all Americans. By raising the wage of employees with federal contracts to $10.10, he has set a tangible example for how American businesses, small and large, can support our workforce.
In his address last night, Obama also emphasized measures needed to promote gender equity, emphasizing that economic opportunity must extend to both men and women. In stating that men and women alike must be empowered to balance work and family, the President tied the success of our economy to the wellbeing of every worker. Our conception of citizenship today entails equal treatment in the workplace.
The President’s address also emphasized that the rights and responsibilities of citizenship extend even to the country’s youngest. The rights of citizenship start with early education and universal pre-K, and they extend to higher education — for the American Dream to persist, higher education must be accessible to all Americans, not just the ones who were born into prosperous households. The White House’s College Opportunity Summit continues the important task of strengthening our universities and supporting our students. And it includes job training, an area in which Vice President Biden’s leadership will be essential. With improvements at all of these stages, we can help fulfill our responsibilities of citizenship.
And the President’s commitment to opportunity for all includes providing healthcare for all. As the President reminded us, the Affordable Care Act is working. Three million young Americans are now able to stay on their parents’ insurance until they turn 26, and more than nine million Americans have signed up for private insurance or expanded Medicaid. And unlike the only existing Republican alternative, no one can be penalized because of a preexisting condition.
A unique characteristic of American citizenship is that it is open to people from all corners of the globe. The President reminded us of the millions of undocumented workers in this country who want to earn such citizenship, urging Congress to take action. Immigration reform will provide new opportunities for growth and extend the promise of the American Dream to a population our legal system has ignored for far too long.
The responsibilities of citizenship extend beyond direct obligations to our fellow citizens. While we must continue to grow the economy and develop new industries, this growth must not come at the expense of the environment. The President made clear that while the United States should continue seeking energy independence, we should do so in a way that balances national security concerns with environmental well-being, economic development with the development of sustainable energy sources.
The responsibilities of citizenship are not always easy to fulfill, equal opportunity not always easy to supply. But the President’s unfailing optimism should continue to drive us forward to make our union stronger.
Rebecca Ellison is a junior in Branford College and the president of the Yale College Democrats. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.