President Obama’s critics would have us believe that his agenda is too ambitious, perhaps even too radical. The president is asking too much of the American people.
In fact, he is asking too little—especially when it comes to his official pronouncements.
Instead of using his first Thanksgiving Proclamations of 2009 and 2010 to renew the tradition of the country’s most activist presidents and actually speak to the nation about where it should be headed±and to Americans about what they could do to shape a better world—Obama has for two years running recycled the predictable pronouncements of George W. Bush. If fairness, the forty-fourth president has included fewer references to God than did his predecessor, while adding notes regarding “the contributions of Native Americans, who helped the early colonists survive their first harsh winter and continue to strengthen our Nation.”
But Obama’s proclamations are more perfunctory than inspirational. The problem is not so much with the current president as with the people who manage “communications” in the White House. In recent decades, they have narrowed the definition of acceptable communications regarding Thanksgiving. It is permissible to engage in the performance art of “pardoning” the White House turkey. And it is now common practice to blur the lines of separation of church and state, as it is to deify former Presidents Washington and Lincoln.
But when it comes do encouraging people to do anything more than get together for a nice meal, however, everything goes vague. Bush reminded folks to be “mindful of the need to share our gifts with others, and our Nation is moved to compassionate action. We pay tribute to all caring citizens who reach out a helping hand and serve a cause larger than themselves.” Obama encourages us “to express appreciation to those whose lives enrich our own; and to share our bounty with others.”
Contrast the tepid offerings of recent years with the muscular statements of Franklin Roosevelt, who opened his final Thanksgiving Proclamation with a reference to 1944 as “this year of liberation, which has seen so many millions freed from tyrannical rule…” and made a powerful plea for religious diversity and tolerance. “Let every man of every creed go to his own version of the Scriptures for a renewed and strengthening contact with those eternal truths and majestic principles which have inspired such measure of true greatness as this nation has achieved,” declared Roosevelt.
A year later, Harry Truman pushed the envelope further, declaring in his first Thanksgiving Proclamation that: "We give thanks with the humility of free men, each knowing it was the might of no one arm but of all together by which we were saved. Liberty knows no race, creed, or class in our country or in the world." As the years passed, Truman would make international solidarity central to his messages, urging in 1947 "a firm resolve to assist in the efforts being made by religious groups and other bodies to aid the undernourished, the sick, the aged, and all sufferers in war-devastated lands," and in 1948 declaring that: "We are privileged to participate in international efforts to advance human welfare. We are profoundly grateful for the existence of an international forum where differences among nations may be submitted to world opinion with a view to harmonious adjustment."
But the most ambitious Thanksgiving Proclamations were those of a Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower. In his final message to the nation, delivered in November, 1960, Eisenhower quickly proclaim a day of national thanksgiving and then got down to business:
Furthermore, I call upon our people, while giving thanks for our blessings, to direct their thoughts to the peoples of other lands less fortunate than we. In particular, I urge my fellow Americans to support and assist the efforts which we as a Nation, working individually and in cooperation with other nations, are directing toward the solution of the world-food problem.
Under the Food-for-Peace Program, a distinguished company of voluntary citizens’ groups and rigious societies is making heart-warming contributions to this effort. I ask our people to give them continued support.
At the same time, I urge my fellow Americans to assist in the Freedom-from-Hunger Campaign of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Our Government fully supports the objectives of this organization. But success of its campaign requires the active cooperation of generous citizens, and of public and private groups, in our country and around the world.
Let us hope that some day, under a benevolent Providence and through the best use of the world’s God-given resources, each nation will have reason to celebrate its own thanksgiving day.</i>
What made Eisenhower’s proclamation worthy of note in 1960—and worthy of recalling fifty years later—was not the platitudes, which he kept to a minimum. It was his use of the platform afforded him as president—the “bully pulpit”—to educate a nation, to call people to action and to imagine that “best use of the world’s God-given resources” when all human beings might know abundance and peace.
These are radical ideas. And no president who means to shape a better world should miss an opportunity to advance them with the specifics, the focus and the passion that Eisenhower brought to the task.