What did Joe Biden fail to tell us in his eloquent acceptance speech on the night of Aug. 20 at the Democratic National Convention?
If you’re into foreign affairs, you probably were miffed that he didn’t bring up the serious threats to U.S. interests from Iran and China. If you’re into domestic policy, you may have been disappointed not to hear, as Ronald Brownstein wrote in The Atlantic, “a more targeted economic message to working and middle-class families.”
And if law and order is your thing, you probably wondered why Biden didn’t bring up the rioting and violence that have plagued several U.S. cities this summer.
What did I miss hearing the most?
First, here’s what I liked about the speech: Passion and decency. No matter which side of the political fence you’re on, that stuff counts. Character counts. Empathy counts.
At a time of deep crisis and division in our society, Biden hit all the right emotional notes. His speech offered an uplifting, hopeful, almost utopian vision of America.
But to achieve that vision, everything came from the government. While Biden kept using the word “together,” at no point did he ask me to do or sacrifice anything. That is what I missed most about the speech.
He could have said something like this:
“My government will do everything in its power to fight the COVID-19 virus, to revitalize our economy, to reduce income inequality, to even the playing field for all Americans, to strengthen our safety net, to improve health care and education, to fight climate change and give everyone a shot at the American dream.
“But there’s something you can do that I can’t. You can volunteer in your communities to help the less fortunate. You can learn new skills in a changing job market. You can become a better parent, spouse, son or daughter, sibling, friend, boss, neighbor, citizen.
“If we are going to get through this crisis together as a nation, let’s remember that the government can’t do it alone. Policies from the top need partnership on the ground. Great initiatives need people to do their share. It’s not enough to demonstrate or to vote. To succeed together, we all must contribute, each in our own way, to the common good.”
Biden is hardly the first politician to promise the moon without asking for anything in return. That’s how selling works. One side offers something that sounds amazing, the other side buys. The seller assumes the buyer will be turned off by “too much truth.”
But politicians shouldn’t underestimate the power of candor and honesty. For one thing, it will grab people’s attention. Can you think of anything more attention-getting than a politician who’s honest about what they can’t do and candid about what you can do?
President John F. Kennedy gave us a taste of such honesty with his famous words, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
Kennedy, of course, is the exception that proves the rule. Most politicians are too eager for our support to ask us for anything other than our vote and a donation. Putting any more pressure on the voter is seen as too risky.
But if asking people to share responsibility is risky, it also can be empowering. If all I hear is what you can do for me, you diminish me. But when you treat people like partners, you empower them. Deep down, people like to hear they have plenty to contribute—to their country, communities and families. It makes them feel important, invested.
Pushing for new government policies is indispensable, but it’s not enough. People need skin in the game. The policies that matter most to our country, ultimately, are the ones we choose to run our own lives.
Those are the policies rooted in the Jewish value of personal responsibility.
We hear a lot about the Jewish values of justice, human rights and compassion, and Biden’s speech had them well covered. But the Jewish value of taking responsibility—both for our lives and the welfare of our nation—is the harder sell. It’s the value we often find missing in modern discourse and political speeches.
When Biden said, “United we can, and will, overcome this season of darkness in America,” he didn’t specify what that meant for us. In other words, what should “we the people” do to help our country overcome this darkness?
If Biden wants to “build back better,” he’ll need more than a great big government. He’ll need a great big citizenry ready to step up.
David Suissa is editor-in-chief and publisher of Tribe Media Corp and Jewish Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was first published by the Jewish Journal.