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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama's Call to Action: Why We Cannot Wait

A generation ago in 1961, President John F. Kennedy exhorted the country to take out a new spirit of public service as a new generation took the helm of the United States. Inspired by his call to action, many young Americans would span out across the globe in the Peace Corps and at home came calls for social justice, racial equality, and eventually peace.

In just a few hours today, a new President will take office with as much excitement if not more than that day in 1961. There will be other days to reflect on the pitfalls ahead. There will be other times to reflect on how Camelot and the "Best and the Brightest" to coin the phrase of David Halberstam would end up in the 1960s.

Today we enter a new era with hope and anticipation. We enter a new time where a black President is a reality just as Kennedy ushered in a time when a Catholic President was a reality.

However, there is so much more to the inspiration of President Barack Obama. One of the enduring moments this week, among many which including throngs of well-wishers and supporters gathering in Washington and as notably along his train route, was the image yesterday of the President taking off his coat and painting. Symbolic to be sure, but it was a sign that this President is going to roll up his sleeves and get into the dirty work.

In the midst of all of his excitement was his call to service. He called on people of all ages to give 50 hours to community service a year.

As much as we need a new era of sacrifice by Americans, as much as we need a new call to action, a new call for us to ask what we can do for our country, there is so much more that needs to be done.

For a moment though, contrast this picture with what we saw on September 11, 2001 and the coming days. The country was ready for action. The country was yearning to come together for a national purpose. The country would have heeded any call to sacrifice. One of the big failings of the past administration was the failure to take advantage of that collective moment of unity. Instead it dissolved into polarization. The world was behind us that day and instead we divided it with our ill-considered war against Iraq.

But today I want to talk about the future, not the past. Our communities need Obama's help. Our communities are struggling. We can start at the State level and work our way down. We cannot afford to wait any longer.

California faces a 40 billion dollar deficit in the coming year. It cannot go into debt. Its legislature is polarized by partisan differences and agendas. Its Governor gained not a single vote in support of his budget proposal from his own party. Workers are facing furloughs, pay cuts, and the very real prospect of the loss of jobs during the toughest economic crisis in recent memory.

We need to take back our state. We need the kind of change at the state level that we have at the federal level and the next election is a distant two years away. We cannot wait.

Banks are failing. Businesses that have long histories are filing for bankruptcy and many are closing their doors. We cannot wait.

Our cities are going bankrupt. Our schools are laying off teachers and cutting classes. Our universities are turning away students. Our counties that are relied on to provide for the least of us, are in the worst shape of all. We cannot wait.

Our local community is probably in better shape than most. Just this past weekend, I was down in San Luis Obispo and read about the schools there facing massive layoffs. Our own district is probably going to avoid that fate the next year and a half. But still we will have to find a way to absorb multimillion dollars of revenue cuts. The children are the future of this nation, they cannot afford to become a victim in the line of cuts. We cannot wait.

The city of Davis, long thought to be immune from economic downturn is facing over one million in deficits by next year and over three million the following year. We can always question decisions made and the reforms needed, but the fact remains, even the city of Davis needs help. Our roads will go unrepaired. Our infrustructure aging. And while a few are prospering, the citizens of this town are in need of help just like everyone else.

But worst of all is the County of Yolo. It is facing an $18 million deficit, that is one-third of its general fund operating budget. The County of Yolo is in charge of providing for the least of us. It is in charge of feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, and giving medicine to the sick and the old. Our county as it stands right now will not be able to carry on its commitments to the needy in our population.

These are tough times indeed. It is great to serve food at a homeless shelter. It is great to volunteer at a hospital. It is wonderful to donate food for the soup kitchen and clothes to thrift shop. But we must do more. For if the county has to cut services, then there will be more hungry, more homeless, more needy, more sick, and less services to help these people. We cannot wait.

So today as Barack Obama gets sworn in let us celebrate, but tomorrow, we must work.

---David M. Greenwald reporting