President Obama's inaugural call for Americans to participate in a "new era of responsibility" rings true. He's right that government alone cannot remake the country. Individuals must also take steps that, collectively, lead to a national change in thinking and behavior. But what steps?
The new president didn't say in any great detail. Rather, he pointed out that every American must recognize that "we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world."
Perhaps it's best he left the specifics to each person to determine, for no two lives are alike. At the same time, the nation's key challenges can be taken up at the individual level, for isn't the country made up of individuals?
Washington and Wall Street fell for the lure of excess, but so did households. The economy is forcing them to get their budgets in line, but confusion may arise as people – so used to a "consumer" identity – wonder, "Wait, shouldn't I be spending to help the economy?"
In a hole this deep, government has to fill in the first stimulus. Individuals should reduce their credit-card debt, save, and live within their means so that they are in a stronger position down the road.
They can redefine "spending" as service to family, friends, neighbors, and strangers as unemployment spreads and basic needs grow.
Mr. Obama also spoke of transforming schools and colleges, but parents must apply themselves harder to their children's education. They must engage with schools, make sure their kids attend class and that homework gets done. Among other duties, it is "a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate," Obama said from the Capitol.
He also promised cleaner energy. Here, too, individuals can play a big role. Some folks may snicker at keeping tires inflated properly or switching out light bulbs. They may resist mass transit, especially as gas prices have dropped. But these actions multiplied by 300 million Americans can make a real difference.
A big campaign issue for both political parties was more accessible, less costly healthcare. Prevention can go a long way toward cutting costs. Individuals approach preventive healthcare in different ways, but what if they considered it not merely as a personal goal? What if they saw it as a contribution to a whole and sound nation?
Obama wants to bring a new tone to Washington. But don't all individuals have a responsibility to speak kindly and respect differences? What if, as inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander posed, "the mightiest word is love"?
None of the above actions and attitudes are new. President George W. Bush rallied up "armies of compassion" and President Carter asked Americans to conserve. But they do require renewed attention at this time. They remind Americans to work for something "bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions," as Obama put it.
In heralding this new responsibility era, Obama described citizenship as having a price and a promise. Indeed, people should prepare themselves for the price – it may come in the form of higher energy costs, delayed Social Security retirement, or a Medicare that's more aligned to seniors' financial needs.
But the promise is a stronger nation, one which the new president can't possibly build by himself.