Quiet Passion

“Anybody in this country who works hard should have a fair shot at success, period.”

—President Obama, January 9, 2104

A week ago today Chris Christie gave his famous press conference denying he knew anything about his aides deliberately clogging up traffic on New Jersey’s side of the busiest bridge in the world for some unknown reason. That presser has been the subject of much media attention, for obvious reasons.

Because of all that attention given to the Christie traffic scandal, what you probably missed a week ago today was a remarkable speech President Obama gave in the East Room of the White House, a few hours after Christie’s press conference that morning. Fortunately for me, MSNBC broadcast the entire speech, the first one in which I heard the President say,

This is going to be a year of action.

Part of the action involves the federal government establishing what the President called “Promise Zones.” He defined them this way:

They’re neighborhoods where we will help local efforts to meet one national goal — that a child’s course in life should be determined not by the zip code she’s born in, but by the strength of her work ethic and the scope of her dreams.

President Obama made clear that he wasn’t just talking about “poverty in our inner cities,” but also about “suburban neighborhoods that have been hammered by the housing crisis,” and “manufacturing towns that still haven’t recovered after the local plant shut down,” and “islands of rural America where jobs are scarce.” Those are diverse zip codes.

And he also talked about how helping these diverse communities wasn’t just the job of government, but should include “faith institutions and our businesses and the parents and the communities themselves.” The model of government partnering with non-government entities used in the speech was an organization called the Harlem Children’s Zone, which serves poor children and families in Harlem by providing parenting support (“Baby College”), pre-school programs (“to get kids learning at four years old”) and public charter schools (“that help students succeed all the way through high school”).

In the audience listening to the speech were none other than both senators from Kentucky, Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul. One of the initial five Promise Zones will be in southeastern Kentucky.

Having said all that, what I really found amazing about the speech you will see in the clip posted below. I watched both Chris Christie’s press conference and this speech by Obama on the same day and I must say the contrast was striking.

There was a young man standing behind the President named Roger Brown, who had attended Harlem Children’s Zone and who, you will hear the President say, “almost got himself expelled” for misbehaving. He is now a college sophomore. What you will also hear, in the President’s voice as he wanders off script, is the kind of quiet passion he almost never gets credit for. There are those who do things with a roar, like Chris Christie, and there are those who do things with much less noise but with as much or more passion.

Before you watch the five-minute clip below, read part of what President Obama said and think about how amazing it is that the United States of America, an experiment largely started by some brilliant and hypocritical white men, has become such a place that someone with a dark complexion and a strange name can today lead the country and say this:

If you want to know why I care about this stuff so much. It’s because I’m not that different from Roger.  There was a period of time in my life where I was goofing off.  I was raised by a single mom.  I didn’t know my dad.  The only difference between me and Roger was my environment was more forgiving than his.  That’s the only difference.  If I screwed up, the consequences weren’t quite as great…

I want more kids to have the chance that Roger got.  I want more kids to have the chance this country gave me.  We should all want every one of our kids and their families to have a shot at success.  If you are willing to dream big and work hard, you should grow up with the same opportunities in life as any other child living in any other place. 

The entire speech can be seen here. Transcript here.

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