During Tuesday night's State of the Union address, President Obama used some variation of the word "work" just under 70 times. Given that his speech lasted a televised 65 minutes, applause and cheers included, that's more than a mention a minute.
For a speech that is generally thought to demonstrate the current president's goals for the upcoming year and for which time per topic is carefully allotted and subsequently analyzed as representative of presidential priority, that's a whole lot.
In a lot of ways, this makes sense. One of the most basic tasks of the president is to keep the economy running. Jobs are, of course, a major part of that – particularly when the economy is less than stellar. Given the state of the economy when President Obama took office in 2008, it is no surprise that jobs and creating work has been the major theme throughout his tenure in the White House.
To limit the address's focus on work to nothing more than the same old focus on job growth, though, would be a mistake. To really understand all these mentions, it is important to examine the context with which they were presented – that is, in a speech to Congress and to the nation about the state of the United States, and, in particular, the state of the possibility of the American dream.
Work – hard work in particular – is fundamentally tied to the American dream – the dream that, as President Obama put it Tuesday night, "our success should depend not on accident of birth, but the strength of our work ethic and the scope of our dreams." That, "if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead."
There's a problem with that language, though, and a problem with the overwhelming focus on work and personal responsibility that permeated the president's address – it creates the illusion that here in America, not only can we do it all by ourselves – we should.
Even as President Obama was addressing government aid in things like inequality in education, a higher minimum wage, and the creation of jobs in high-tech manufacturing "hubs," he was using language evocative of the mythic tales of Horatio Alger – of just you and your virtues pulling yourself up by your bootstraps through lots and lots of your own hard work, "grit and determined effort."
That's an incompatibility, and it's one that persists whether you believe the government should be big or small. If you believe the government should exist at all – and I suppose these days it's a real possibility that you don't; the American dream and the way we talk about it needs updating.
As it stands today, achieving the American dream doesn't just somewhat involve individual effort, it is solely about individual effort. Luck and government support have nothing to do with it – if anything, these other factors are detriments, not benefits – even more challenges for the individual to overcome with even more work.
It focuses, too, on the traditional definition of work – that is, labor – and ignores the importance of art, creativity and innovation—all vitally important factors that, in a world where automation is beginning to take the place of manual labor, will become the source of more and more enterprise.
Most detrimental, though, is the implication that we deserve what we get and we get what we deserve – that the wealthy earned all of their keep, and that the poor and the homeless, well they earned that, too.
I hardly think President Obama believes any of these things, but in referencing the American dream and emphasizing the role of work within the dream, he certainly alluded to them quite a few times.
Tuesday night, President Obama called restoring the promise of opportunity the "defining project of our generation." We cannot do this with our old dream idea of sole self-sufficiency. Instead, we need a new dream – one in which lending (and sometimes taking) a helping hand is valued too.
Melissa Lee is a senior in College Scholars. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.