Beyond "We Take Care of Our Own": Hopes for Obama's Second Term

As the confetti fell last night after Barack Obama's acceptance speech just after 2am, viewers at home were treated to the familiar sounds of a Bruce Springsteen song: "We Take Care of Our Own."

Though the Obama campaign's official Spotify playlist contained a number of other inspiring songs from diverse genres, including country, pop, hip hop, and R&B, it will be "We Take Care of Our Own" that will go down as the campaign song of 2012. (Sorry Chubb Rock!)

"We Take Care of Our Own," despite its powerful chorus, is somewhat of an unusual choice to be an uplifting anthem. Like that other great Springsteen anthem with a killer chorus ("Born in the U.S.A."), its patriotic language and tone is countered by a deep sense of tragedy and failure recounted in the verses of the song itself. Let's start with the second verse of the song:
From Chicago to New Orleans
From the muscle to the bone
From the shotgun shack to the Super Dome
There aint no help, the cavalry stayed home
There aint no one hearing the bugle blowin'
We take are of our own
Where ever this flag is flown

Of course, the clear historical reference point here is 2005 and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which left tens of thousands of people in New Orleans stranded, without basic supplies or help, for an unconscionably long time. It was one of the lowest, most shameful moments I can remember from the past decade -- a national trauma that I don't think Americans have really worked through fully enough.

So when the chorus kicks in: "We take care of our own," there's a sense of irony. In fact, in 2005, under George Bush's FEMA, we actually didn't take care of our own at all. The chorus is therefore partly a rebuke for that failure, not just a clean statement of a compassionate ethos.

Now take the third verse:
Where're the eyes, the eyes with the will to see
Where're the hearts that run over with mercy
Where's the love that has not forsaken me
Where's the work that'll set my hands, my soul free
Where's the spirit to reign, reign over me
Where's the promise, from sea to shining sea
Where's the promise, from sea to shining sea
Wherever this flag is flown
For me this is the most moving and interesting part of the song. The series of rhetorical questions starts out implying that a crucial part of the American dream has been neglected: as in, "Where are the eyes with the will to see?" But of course, there's just enough hope in the lines to forestall an utterly bleak posture, and as the verse progresses the questions start to become answers. Lines like "Where's the love that has not forsaken me" and "Where's the spirit to reign, reign over me" suggest that a constructive, transformative energy (the "spirit") keeps us from falling over the cliff. Where is the love? Where is the spirit? Why, it's here in this song. It's in Bruce Springsteen. (And the Obama campaign wants to say: it's here too, in our campaign, in our candidate.)

So the chorus can be positive and constructive despite the evidence given in the verses of the song suggesting that there might not be much reason to hope that "We take care of our own" is a promise that anyone is actually interested in fulfilling. (And if you listen to the rest of the songs on Springsteen's "Wrecking Ball" or his earlier album "The Rising," there is plenty of bleakness to be found. See for instance, "Death to my hometown.")

One hopes that the sense of the vision of compassion in the United States encapsulated by "We Take Care of Our Own" turns out to be true in Barack Obama's second term. In the first four years of the Obama presidency, there were some signs that it was -- Health Care reform, the various efforts taken to rescue the economy from the brink of disaster -- but also a certain worrying coziness with regards to the Obama administration's alignment with corporate interests and the financial industry. (Will Obama's response to the recent "Superstorm Sandy" be appreciably better than George Bush's response to Katrina? I hope so, but time will tell.)

And I have a deeper frustration with "We Take Care of Our Own" that isn't just about the ideological question of whether the United States is a society that believes "we're all in this together" or "you're on your own" (to reprise one of Obama's standard talking points). As a person whose family originates in India, I can't help but wonder about the nearly seven billion people in the world who don't count as "our own." Do we, as the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world, have any obligation to those who live, and sometimes struggle, under flags that are not the American flag? 

I admire "We Take Care of Our Own" and the other recession-era anthems on Bruce Springsteen's Wrecking Ball. And I remain a pretty passionate supporter of Barack Obama, while recognizing his limits and flaws. But when I hear the chorus of this song, part of me is always held back from fully embracing it by its grammar. The truth is, "we take care of our own" simply isn't enough for me. 

I voted for Barack Obama in 2008 hoping that his international connections and background -- a father from Kenya, years spent living abroad in Indonesia -- might lead to a new kind of transnational understanding and a shifting away from the rhetoric of American exceptionalism in our foreign policy. But that hasn't happened (though admittedly, during this past campaign it would have been politically suicidal for Obama to make any noises in this direction). I believe the United States has an obligation to take care of its own, but I also firmly believe in the obligation of privileged countries to try and better the circumstances of people living in poorer countries. 

Can we still get there? My hopes for the foreign policy agenda of the second Obama administration might entail: 1) rethinking the disastrous "no distance from Israel" policy that has led to a complete stalemate in progress towards a two-state solution (while the Palestinians continue to suffer under occupation); 2) rethinking the drone war and targeted assassinations in Pakistan and Afghanistan;  3) rethinking the approach to "American jobs" that means that jobs, growth, and development in other countries -- such as China and India -- is only registered a bad thing or a loss for Americans; and 4) a serious investment in working to combat global climate change.

Yesterday, a UC Irvine professor named Mark LeVine published a hard-hitting essay on arguing that in actuality Barack Obama doesn't really get the Bruce Springsteen whose message he exploits -- that he doesn't deserve the mantle of a populist or the embrace of the guy who wrote "The Ghost of Tom Joad."

I am more upbeat on Obama than Professor LeVine -- I do hope that President Obama, in his second term, might earn and fulfill the promise of compassion to American citizens that Bruce Springsteen represents. But I hope he'll go beyond the Boss as well: we take care of every one.