The back and forth of the 2012 campaign, the nasty, the exciting, full of mistakes, promises, cynicism, and dreams, were captured in a single moment on a stage at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“You know,” Barack Obama said. “I recognize that times have changed since I first spoke to this convention. Times have changed, and so have I. I’m no longer just a candidate. I’m the president.”
Candidate Obama had the luxury of campaigning on the Crow Reservation and clearly communicating that Indian country matters. President Obama has continued that signal in ways large and small ranging from the White House Tribal Nations Conference to raising money from the Native American community.
Obama’s Thursday night acceptance speech was not a direct pitch to Indian country voters. Yet the policies he talked about directly impact life for Native people living on reservations, villages or cities.
“We don’t think the government can solve all of our problems, but we don’t think the government is the source of all of our problems,” Obama said. “Any more than our welfare recipients or corporations or unions or immigrants or gays or any other group we’re told to blame for our troubles, because, because America, we understand that this democracy is ours.”
This single idea matters because the role of government is critical to Indian country. Tribal enterprises, whether a gas station, convenience store, or a casino, are government-run businesses.
It’s the same in Detroit. Obama’s investment in General Motors made it – briefly – a tribal enterprise of sorts. And now? “We are making things again,” Obama said. “I’ve met workers in Detroit and Toledo who feared they’d never build another American car. And today they can’t build them fast enough because we reinvented a dying auto industry that’s back on the top of the world.”
So this is the choice, the role of government. “Over and over, we’ve been told by our opponents that bigger tax cuts and fewer regulations are the only way, that since government can’t do everything, it should do almost nothing.” he said.
In Indian country governments do create jobs. Most of the jobs, in fact, the contrast, the choice in this election, at least for Indian country, might come down to this one idea.
Republicans have been attacking government for generations. Ronald Reagan summed it up succinctly when he said: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” To be fair, this contrast is one of degrees. The GOP counter argument is that local government governs best … and that is one that affords tribal governments with at least an opening.
But back to Obama and his defense of government: His speech articulated the idea of a government as a lofty ideal. “We believe,” he said, “in something called citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations.”
It’s not a stretch to read those words and think about treaties and a great nation keeping its word. Of course no president has done that, literally, but on daily actions ranging from settling long-debated Native American claims against the United States to improved funding for health care, the president has stepped forward when other presidents have not.
Another role of government – one that Republicans favor as well – is supporting the military and the military families. Indeed, across Indian country this is a sacred obligation.
“I’m no longer just a candidate. I’m the president,” he said. And after that cheers quieted. “And that — and that means I know what it means to send young Americans into battle, for I’ve held in my arms the mothers and fathers of those who didn’t return.”
Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: firstname.lastname@example.org.