How Obama and JFK Evoke the Ideals of the Commons

Jay Walljasper – Author, All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons

Posted: January 23, 2011 12:04 PM


This week the country awaits to hear what direction Barack Obama charts for the next two years in his State of the Union speech. A masterful orator, Obama often reaches higher toward the common good in his vision than in his policies. He’s one of a number of American leaders who have evoked the ideals of the commons, including John F. Kennedy and Paul Wellstone.

“I believe that for all of our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.”

These words from President Obama struck a chord with many Americans, even those–on both the right and left–who remain skeptical of his policies on health care, war, economic policy, the role of government and more.

He touched many of us, still reeling from the Tucson tragedy, when he eulogized 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green as “a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday too she might play a part in shaping her nation’s future.”

This was not a political speech, although its political implications may be longstanding. Obama, as he does in his best moments as a leader, reached past the deep-seated differences that deadlock Washington to grasp a larger meaning for America.

Of course, the precise interpretation of that meaning is up for grabs as commentators of all stripes sliced it and diced it according to their needs. But let me offer one more perspective, which views Obama’s words in not-the-usual light.

I believe Obama was evoking–perhaps not consciously–the ideals of the commons, which is a very old idea being embraced by growing numbers of people as a new source of hope. The commons is a worldview that emphasizes the value of people working together for the common good rather than as isolated individuals seeking private gain. The phrase can be defined as “all that we share”–what belongs to us equally and must