Seizing an Opportunity

Up until this week, if you had asked me how I rated President Obama on a scale of 1 to 10, I’d have said I give him a 2. That’s 2, as in Bush 2.

It astounded me that this president seemed to be making the same fundamental mistake the last one made: thinking he could handle this mess without us.

I’d been watching the president everywhere: courtside at basketball games, on Jay Leno’s couch, giving press conferences. He had ample opportunities to get his message out, and that message was always: You’re in good hands. We have a plan. Some very smart people are hard at work fixing your economy. Trust us.

I stared in disbelief at this bright man in whom we have invested so much hope, and I thought: Really? That’s the best you could do? Where have we heard that before?

The beginning of the end of President George W. Bush’s promise occurred in the frightening, confusing days following the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001. Americans were never more united; we had never been more eager to fight any way we could for our country. All we were waiting for were marching orders from our commander-in-chief.

But when Bush addressed the nation, when he was asked specifically what each American could do for the cause, what did he answer? Shop. Go about our daily lives. Get back to normal.

Not only did Bush fail to galvanize the country, his missed-message distracted us from facing some of the underlying problems that make us vulnerable to terror, such as our Mideast oil dependence. We went from a people primed to fight for our country, to a people gluttonously spending and borrowing for ourselves. And look how far that’s got us.

Up until this week, Obama seemed to be making the same mistake.

Every time he went before the American people, I expected Obama to tell us what each one of us can do in this crisis. Instead, I got lessons on macroeconomics, loan subvention and credit swaps. He warned us over and over that things will continue to be hard; that we’re all in this together. But that was a call to sacrifice, not to serve. It’s more like striding to the podium and yelling, “Duck and cover!” It was Bush, not John F. Kennedy.

That changed this week, when Obama announced he will sign and spearhead bipartisan congressional legislation for national service, the Serve America and GIVE acts.

That legislation will create a service corps of some 250,000 Americans from all stages of life to work full- or part-time in doing everything from building homes for the needy to creating community gardens to delivering food to shut-ins.

Our Community Organizer-in-Chief has finally come to act on the real opportunity that exists in this country, as it did after 9/11, an opportunity that is not about policy but about people. What America has been waiting for in this time of crisis is for our president to ask something of us, something concrete that each of us can do, every day, to help pull our nation out of this mess.

Though in the past he has emphasized youth service, this week the president asked all of us, not just our young, to come forward and give according to our unique abilities.

It’s as if Obama finally realized what his own unique gift is. Think about it: If Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had been elected president, would the last three months have looked so different? The realities of our multiple crises, whether the economy, Iraq, Iran, offer such a constrained set of policy choices that I’m not sure the centrist McCain’s actions would have been wildly different from Obama’s.

The biggest difference between the two men is the force of personality. Obama possesses the ability to galvanize the masses.

“We are in the grips of Obama-philia,” the author and commentator Gregory Rodriguez said at a Los Angeles Magazine salon last week. He meant it as a warning against heightened expectations, but it’s also the reason I’d been so disappointed. Love is a terrible thing to waste, and Obama seemed to be squandering the precious capital he could extract from us: caring for one another and our country.

“While our government can provide every opportunity imaginable for us to serve our communities, it is up to each of us to seize those opportunities,” Obama wrote in this week’s TIME magazine.

All the signs are that the Jewish community, for its part, is ready to seize those opportunities. Also this week, a group of major Jewish foundations announced they would pool resources to fund a new nonprofit, Repair the World, that would energize a new Jewish social service movement.

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, Einhorn Family Charitable Trust, Jim Joseph Foundation and Nathan Cummings Foundation told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency they will provide more monies to existing Jewish organizations, develop materials for Jewish participants in nonsectarian programs, such as Teach for America, and initiate an intensive marketing campaign to encourage young Jews to take part in service.

My only plaint to these foundations is not to limit their funding or energies to the young, but to follow the lead of the president and reach Jews of all ages who are ready to serve. They will be surprised at the willingness of us all, as Jews and as Americans, to pitch in.

It’s about time.