The American Dream has inspired Americans for hundreds of years. In the 2008 American president election, Americans created brand-new history with their own votes. Barack Obama won historic US election and has become the first African American President of the United States after more than 200 years, reclaiming the American Dream and making the Dream vivid and alive in American contemporary society. Why is the American Dream attractive? How Barack Obama’s rise to presidency is regarded as the symbol of the reality and truth of the centuries’ old American Dream? What is its implication in contemporary America? This paper will start with the American Dream which Barack Obama has mentioned many times in his speeches, and will proceed to analyze Barack Obama’s success as a typicality and up-datedness of American Dream and then its implication to the contemporary American Society. The American Dream still plays an important role in modern times. It is still attractive, alive and possible in contemporary America.
Key words: American Dream; Barack Obama; possibilities
For centuries, the American Dream has been an important part in American culture and American Spirit. Since Barack Obama became the President of the United States, the phrase “the American Dream” had become more and more well-known to the Americans. Through his hard work and efforts, Barack Obama fulfilled his American Dream. His rise to presidency recalled American’s passion for their pursuit of their own American Dream. Barack Obama was said to epitomize the American dream. People were concerned about the definition, origin, roles of the American Dream, and its possibility and implication in contemporary America.
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However, until recently, few books and articles had been written on these aspects, and few articles had been written to analyze why Barack Obama was regarded as a typicality of the American Dream (whether it is at the individual level or at the national racial level) and its implication to the contemporary American Society. Also, Barack Obama’s effort to “put the American Dream back within reach for all Americans” is doubted by some Americans with the Tea Party Movement going on.
Based on some English and Chinese books and articles, this paper focuses on the above issues, and shows Barack Obama is the symbol of the American Dream and that the American Dream is still alive and attractive and possible in contemporary America, regardless of the doubts and criticisms. Both Barack Obama and Americans have a long way to go to rejuvenate the American Dream.
2. A brief analysis of the American Dream
2.1. Origin of the American Dream
2.11. New settlers’ Dream in the New Land
Since the American Dream is so important in American history, we may ask how the American Dream originated. The American Dream embodies both the practical spirits and the idealism. For a long time, it has been an important topic in American culture for its abundant meanings and controversial nature. The American Dream has a long history. Long before the founding of the United States of America, the American Dream had started. North America is the ultimate land of opportunity and is a continent of untapped wealth. “The Puritans’ decision to leave England was not simply to flee the King’s oppression, but to fly to a promise land. The New World promised everything that the Old World had denied them. Religious authority, economic opportunity, and social status were available in the New World.”(Jillson 23) New settlers crossed ocean to the New Land from Europe with a belief that in this New Land, anyone can realize their dreams with hard work in spite of his social background. “There were no guarantees in the New Land, and the threats were great and the dangers many, but the possibilities were evident, and they meant to realize them.” (Jillson 23)
Cal Jillson (2004) puts that in those first days of settlement, the core of the American Dream was always the chance to live well. Its elements were always the chance to live rightly and to prosper. Andrew Delanco, in a book entitled the Real American Dream, calls Puritanism “the first American form of hope.” What Puritans hoped for, what they dreamed of and strove mightily to achieve, was to make the word of God live in their lives. Winthrop’s “City upon a Hill” imagery of America as an example to which all mankind should attend has been central to the American Dream since the day Winthrop penned the words.
The Puritanism and pioneering spirits of the settlers contributed a lot to the essence of the American Dream. In the meantime, “the American Dream became a kind of democratic idea during the Great Awakening movement in North America. Later the core of the American Dream was written in the Declaration of Independence, lifting it to a national level” (é™ˆå¼€å¯Œ32). It is not the dream beyond reality, but the idea that has develops with America and demonstrates the American lifestyle and spirits.
2.12. Benjamin Franklin embodied the American Dream
No man more clearly embodied the American Dream than Benjamin Franklin. Franklin’s life, as well as his ideas and writings, came to define the American Dream.
The Autobiography was, first of all, a Puritan document, which was a record of self-examination and self-improvement. In this book, Franklin looked intensely into his past life and described the image a boy’s rise from rags to riches through hard work and wise management. And therein he set a set of virtues that was both practical and democratic for him to cultivate and combated with tempting vices. Anyone could adopt them, practice them, benefit by them, and improve his lot in life. And many did. Those virtues were taught and recited as the nation’s common wisdom throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. “They were and are the moral core of the American Dream: education, work, thrift, dedication, and a dash of good fortune will put an honest man in a position to thrive and prosper. Fate may determine otherwise at first, but probably not forever. All the pieces of the American Dream were in place by the 1780s. Benjamin Franklin, both in his own remarkable life and in the pages of Poor Richard’s Almanac, had been defining the core of the dream for decades; prepare, work hard, save, invest, catch a break, and success will be yours.” (Jillson 34)
It is convinced that, as his Autobiography shows, that man is good and capable of becoming better. Thus through telling a success story of self-reliance, the book celebrated, in fact, the fulfillment of the American Dream. “The publication of Poor Richard’ Almanac and the Autobiography defined the essence of the American Dream and introduced ways of realizing it, marking the forming of the American Dream.”(å¼ å‡¤226-228)
2.2. Historical definitions of the American Dream
Throughout history, the American Dream has been praised by people. People speak highly of those who fulfilled their American Dream. It was promoted for its appeal and possibility. As the economy and society developed, the meaning and definition of the “American Dream” also changed. Hundreds of years’ later, the meaning of the American Dream has become wider and richer. Americans came to realize that it is not only the embodiment of material success but the spiritual pursuit as well.
Historically the Dream originated in the New World, settlers regarded the American Dream as the availability of low-cost land for farm ownership. Americans have sought to realize the American dream of success, fame and wealth through thrift and hard work. For many immigrants, who wanted to escape from political oppression and live a better life in America, the Statue of Liberty is an iconic symbol of the American Dream, signifying freedom, new life and new opportunities. For the black, it means equality of race, no discriminations from the white; for women, it means having equality in gender and sharing equal rights as men.
However it changes, the core meaning of the American Dream is “the faith and ideal that the country and society provide its citizens open and fair opportunity and through hard work, courage, and determination one can develop his talents fully and achieve a better life for oneself.”(é™ˆå¼€å¯Œ32) Many Americans still have strong belief in the American Dream.
2.3. Historical Roles of American Dream
In general, the American Dream is the spark that animates American life. “It is a shimmering vision of a fruitful country open to all who come, learn, work, save, invest, and play by the rules.” (Jillson 7) In the course of American history, this promise of opportunity and sense of possibility has quickened the national pulse from the beginning and has tied each generation to those that came before and, just as importantly, to those that will come after. The American Dream has helped America to attract talents from all over the world, bringing new blood for the fast development of America. CBS News anchor Dan Rather reported that all of the people he interviewed have a “sense of the dream’s presence, and importance, and feel that America has made their own dreams possible. This commonality, this interconnectedness between our own dreams and a national ethos of aspiration may be the dream’s most important contribution to the America of today and tomorrow.”(Jillson 7) However, problems reflected in the pursuit of the American Dream also contributed to the improvement of American society and social systems.
The American Dream reflects the spirits and pursuits of generations of Americans, which led them to settle on the New Land, brought them together in American Independent War and the Civil War, and made America the most powerful country in the world with great progress in material and spiritual fields. As a kind of spiritual pursuit for Americans, “the American Dream develops almost simultaneously with American history; it plays an important role in American history.” (é™ˆå¼€å¯Œ32)
In spite of all the positive and negative sides of the American Dream, it has become an indispensable part of American’s spirit and American culture, and also become the driving force for one’s self-improvement and part of American values. The American Dream has always been, and continues to be, the gyroscope of American life, and it is still alive and vivid as Barack Obama’s reclaimed the American Dream.
2.4. A General Definition of the American Dream
No phrase captures the distinctive character and promise of American life better than the phrase “the American Dream”. As President Barack Obama said in one of his speech, “We may come from different places and have different stories, but we share common hopes, and one very American Dream.” There are other beautiful lands, other free societies, and other wealthy nations, but America is “exceptional” because it is the home of an idea-that idea is the American Dream.
What is the American Dream? Different people hold different ideas.
In American literature, èµµçº¢è‹±(2006) concludes the American Dream as “the faith held by many in the United States of America that through hard work, courage, and determination one can achieve a better life for oneself, usually through financial prosperity. These were values held by many early European settlers to the New Land, and have been passed on to subsequent generations. Nowadays the American Dream has led to an emphasis on material wealth as a measure of success and happiness.” According to this definition, hard work is the fundamental element for one’s success, and the dream was passed to generations of Americans, but today the meaning of the dream also changed through time. In addition, we can see that the American Dream also had a great influence on American literature.
Call Jillson (2004) puts that “The American Dream” means a fair chance to succeed in open competition with fellow citizens for the good things of life. The grand promise of the American Dream has always been that those willing to learn, work, save, persevere, and play by the rules would have a better chance to grow and prosper in America than virtually anywhere else on earth.” This definition by Call Jillson can best describe the attractiveness of the American Dream: fair chance and open competition. These are what attract millions of immigrants to America each year. America is the land which provides its citizens with fair chance and open competition, thus each one can put their potential to full use.
Based on the definitions of Historian James Truslow Adams (1931) and Call Jillson (2004), this paper holds that the American Dream can be defined from two aspects. At the National level, the American Dream is the National Dream of the United States. It is “a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” (Wikipedia) The idea of the American Dream is closely related to the American Creed which is rooted in the United States Declaration of Independence, which proclaims that “all men are created equal” and that they are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights” including “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The dream demands that the nation (government) and society can constantly perfect itself and “stand for opportunity and provides an open, fair, competitive, entrepreneurial environment in which individual merit could find its place”, and in which “life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”
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At the individual level, the American Dream is the promise that the country holds out to the rising generation and to immigrants that hard work and fair play will, almost certainly, lead to success. “It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as a man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.” (Wikipedia)All those who are willing to strive, to learn, to work hard, to save and invest, will have every chance to succeed and to enjoy the fruits of their success in safety, security, and good order. “Education (physical and intellectual skills), good character (honesty, cleanliness, sobriety, religiosity), hard work (frugality, saving, investing), and a little luck form a broad pathway to the American Dream.”(Jillson 7)
In conclusion, the American Dream is the dream that in America, under the insurance of its laws and social systems, the country provides its citizens equal rights, opportunities and fair chance to live a better life; and each individual can pursue his own dreams and realize his potential according to his own hard work, preparation, education, etc. and finally achieve his own success. And these two points were and continue to be the most attractive and influential essences of the American Dream.
3. Barack Obama’s American Dream
3.1. Barack Obama reclaims the American Dream
Barack Obama recalls Americans’ passion to pursue their American Dream in his speeches and political plan. “With a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas, I know that my story is only possible in America. My family didn’t have much when I was growing up, but they gave me love, a good education, and hope-hope that in this country, no dream is beyond our grasp if we reach for it, and fight for it, and work for it. And the reason I’m running for president is to put the American Dream within reach for every family in North Carolina, and in this country.”(Obama, Best Speeches of 78) On April 14, 2008, he mentioned that “We may come from different places and have different stories, but we share common hopes, and one very American Dream.” (Thomas 24) What made the phrase “the American Dream” known to many and helped Barack Obama gain a nationwide reputation was the Keynote address on July 27, 2004. As he mentioned in the address: “My parents shared not only an improbable love; they shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation. They would give me an African name, Barack, or “blessed”, believing that in a tolerant America your name is no barrier to success. They imagined me going to the best schools in the land, even though they were not rich, because in a generous America you do not have to be rich to achieve your potential. I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those came before me, and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible. Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation, not because of the height of our skyscrapers, or the power of our military, or the size our economy. Our pride is based on a very simple premise, summed up in a declaration made over two hundred years ago, “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are aerated equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” That is the true genius of America, a faith in the simple dreams of its people, the insistence on small miracles. We are called to reaffirm our values and commitments, to hold them against a hard reality and see how we are measuring up, to the legacy of our forbearers, and the promise of future generations.”(Obama, Best Speeches of 506-507) In this speech, his interpretation of the American Dream won him great popularity. His interpretation of the American Dream was based on the general definition of the American Dream and the American Creed. The phrase “the American Dream” once again captured Americans’ attention in contemporary American society, leading Americans to rethink the American Dream.
In his book he also claimed the fundamental promise of America-“that no matter where you come from, or what you look like, or who your parents are, this is a country where you can make it if you try.” (Obama, Change We Can 2) and he introduced his vision for America rooted in the values that have always made America the last best hope of Earth. The people he met believe in personal responsibility, hard work, and self-reliance. They also believe in fairness, opportunity, and responsibilities they have to one another. They believe in an America where good jobs are there for the willing, where hard work is rewarded with a decent living.
Whether in his speeches or in his books, the American Dream has been the core of Barack Obama’s message to American people. He seemed to try his very best to make the American Dream known to all the Americans and to make them believe that the American Dream should not be forgotten, that the American Dream is still alive and possible in American contemporary society and for future generations of Americans. He did recalled Americans’ enthusiasm and passion for pursuing the American Dream. His personal experience was a perfect example.
3.2. Barack Obama fulfilled the American Dream at the individual level-from problem child to president
According to the Declaration of Independence, “every one is created equal and every one has the right to pursue life, liberty and happiness.” Yet “equal” only means the equal opportunity, not everything. Every one has the opportunity to be educated, to have health care, to become wealth being, and to pursue happiness. One can become what he/she wants to be, not only in materials but in spirits as well. But the precondition is that one has to work hard, and realize it step by step. If you do not work hard diligently, you will never succeed in realizing your American Dream. It’s only a myth for you, not the American Dream.
Barack Obama’s story is the American story. He was born and raised in an ordinary family. Hard work and education were his means of getting ahead, and the conviction that a life so blessed should be achieved by serving others.
With a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas, Obama was born in Hawaii on August 4, 1961. When his mother was 18 years old, she married to Barack Obama’s father-a foreign student from Kenya. However, when he was just 2 yeas’ old, his father left the family. His father remarried and returned to Kenya, visiting him in Hawaii only once 8 years later. Since that, there were no contacts between them. His father died in an automobile accident in 1982. Barack Obama was raised with help from his grandfather, who served in Patton’s army, and his grandmother, who worked her way up from the secretarial pool to middle management at a bank. He spent his child life in Hawaii and Indonesia, both of which are far away from American mainland.
Confused by his social status and complex family background, Barack Obama lived an unhappy childhood. When he was young, he was a problem child. In his book, he confessed that he “lives in his father’s and Americans’ Dream.”(Obama, Dreams from My23) He recalled, “That my father looked nothing like the people around me-that he was black as pitch, my mother white as milk-barely registered in my mind.” (Obama, Dreams from My 200436) He had to struggle to reconcile social perceptions of his multiracial heritage. He also wrote his shameful life experiences in the book. “I was addicted to drugs when I was a teenager. I did not know what life is about as other desperate black teenagers felt.” (Obama, Dreams from My 47) When he was in Indonesia and Hawaii, he used to take marijuana and cocaine and he drank alcohol during his teenage years to “push questions of who I was out of my mind” (Obama, Dreams from My 51). He would always play truant and wander in the streets, “lived a ridiculous life and did many stupid things.” (Obama, Dreams from My 51) At the 2008 Civil Forum on the Presidency, he identified his high-school drug use as a great moral failure. As he puts in the book: “I was a nightmare to all my teachers when I was at high school, nobody knows how to deal with me.” (Obama, Dreams from My 47) As a single parent, Barack Obama’s mother had to work hard and be strict with him to ensure that he receive a good education. However, he would always disappoint his mother. In 2010, he mentioned similar experience but said that he was lucky and got a lot of second chances, he had the opportunity to go to college and law school and follow his American Dreams with his own effort and hard work. Not until he graduated from high school did Barack Obama move to Los Angeles where he went to Occidental College and later transferred to Columbia University. In 1981, he made his first public speech, calling for Occidental’s divestment from South Africa.
He went on to attend law school, where he became the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review. Upon graduation, he returned to Chicago to help lead a voter registration drive, teach constitutional law at the University of Chicago, and remain active in his community.
Obama’s years of public service were based around his unwavering belief in his ability to unite people around a political of purpose. In the Illinois State Senate, he passed the first major ethics reform in 25 years, cut taxes for working families, and expanded health care for children and their parents. He was elected to the Illinois Senate in 1996 and he served three terms in the Illinois Senate from 1997 to 2004. In 2004, he ran for United States Senate. During the campaign, several events brought him to national attention, including his victory in the March 2004 Democratic primary and his keynote address in July 2004. As a United States Senator, he reached across the aisle to pass groundbreaking lobbying reform, lock up the world’s most dangerous weapons, and bring transparency to government by putting federal spending online. He began his presidential campaign in February 2007, and after a close campaign in the 2008 Democratic Party presidential primaries against Hillary Rodham Clinton, he won his party’s nomination. In the 2008 general election, he defeated Republican nominee John McCain, and was inaugurated as president on January 20, 2009. He and his wife, Michelle, are the proud parents of two daughters, Malia and Sasha. They lived a happy life.
At the individual level, Barack Obama is the typical example of the American Dream. “He changed himself from a problem child to a college student, got a lot of second chances and went to law school, became the senator of Illinois and then the senator of the United States, and in 2008 he became the President of the United States.” (å‘¨å…‰å‡¡ 70) His life experience itself is an embodiment of the American Dream. Despite Barack Obama’s mistakes and shameful experiences, he had his own American Dreams, and he received good education, worked hard, prepared well, never gave up, worked from the bottom to the top, and lived a happy and successful life. Who would imagine that a “problem child” would go to Harvard law school and later would even become the first African American president? Young, vigorous, ambitious and hardworking, Barack Obama dramatically changed his life and realized his potential, making people believe that his story was only possible in the land of America. Undoubtedly, just as the American Dream Promises, Barack Obama is the spokesman of the American Dream in contemporary America.
3.3. Barack Obama reclaims the American Dream at the National racial level–from “slave” to president
Obviously, Barack Obama’s rise to presidency claimed the American Dream not only at the individual level but also at the national racial level. Barack Obama’s American Dream was also the dream that Americans have been waiting for more than 200 years: “that all men are created equal”. He was also regarded as a symbol of the reality of the centuries’ old American Dream. The American Dream demanded that the country, government and society ensure an open and fair environment for individuals to pursue their dreams. However, in American history, the truth is that many people were excluded from the dream for their race, gender, color, age etc. For a long time, African Americans could not share the same rights as the white because of their race and color. Discrimination has always been a tough problem for the African Americans.
We can still recall Martin Luther King’s world-famous speech “I have a dream” made nearly 50 years ago. In the speech, he reflected the reality that black people could not share equal rights, opportunities and social status as the white people even 100 years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. As King put: “one hundred years later, the life of the Negros is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination, and the Negros is still anguished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land”. (Cited in é¡¾å¤åƒ- 95-97) In the 1960s, when the civil rights movement was at its climax, Martin Luther King made his dream known to the whole world: even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still I have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” (Cited in é¡¾å¤åƒ- 95-97) Dr. King also rooted the civil rights movement in the black quest for the American Dream in his “letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963), that African Americans would win their freedom. And on August 28th 1964, he predicted that 40 years later there would be a “black” president. Coincidently, 44years later, Barack Obama truly realized Dr. King’s dream and he also achieved the America’s centuries’ old dream. America finally stood up and lived out its true meaning of creed.
“300 years ago, African Americans were slaves, who lived a life of animals and were sold in the street corner; 300 years later, the life of African Americans has changed dramatically and their social status has risen sharply. During the 300 years, African Americans have never stopped fighting for freedom and political rights, and their own American Dreams.”(è´ºå¤ 22) To a large extent, Barack Obama fulfilled an old-century dream for most African Americans. Today in Americans’ eyes, African Americans can really enjoy their freedom and rights. But they were achieved by the efforts of generations of Americans. In order to fight against race problem and discrimination, and gain freedom and equal rights, African Americans have fought hard for hundreds of years; civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King Jr. have sacrificed their lives. It was the struggle of generations of African Americans that they could share their own American Dream, and also made Barack Obama the President of America possible.
Barack Obama’s rise to presidency was a historical moment in American history. Since the founding of America, all the presidents of America were white. Though the American constitution claimed “that all men are created equal”, it took hundreds of years’ of fight and debate to change this “equality” into truth. In 1862, 100 years before Barack Obama was born, when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans did not gain true freedom; they still suffered from discrimination and could not receive good education. What really helped African Americans gain freedom and equality was the civil rights movement in 1960s. The government’s effort also contributed to the cause. President John F. Kennedy and the government helped to perfect America, he published some acts and new laws during the 1960s. Since then African Americans could really share equality as the white. They could go to the same school and do the same job, participate in political life and run for senator. Until today, as Barack Obama was elected the president of America, the centuries’ old American Dream became a reality. Race was not a problem for one to be elected the President of America.
Apart from African Americans’ fight for equality, freedom and their American Dreams, America government and society also contributed to make Barack Obama’s dream possible. Generations of leaders have made their efforts to “perfect the Union” and to ensure that America is moving toward its creed. Americans also believe that they can perfect their union and deal with problems. Barack Obama’s success seems to reclaim the American Dream to the whole world that America can perfect itself and it is still the place where all things are possible. As he put in his victory speech in Chicago(2008), “if there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is still alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer!”(Cited in èƒ¡æ• 219) Being elected as the first African American President in American history, Barack Obama fulfilled Americans’ National Dream that “all men are created equal”.
Barack Obama is a great encouragement for other groups of minorities in the United States. American people have much expectation on Barack Obama not only in economy, politics but also in his promise for Americans to bring the American Dream within reach of all. We do not know whether he will still wear bright smiles on his face after 4 or 8 years, but through his experience we can see that America is perfecting itself and making much progress toward its political creed. “Before his victory in the 2008 Election, he is an ongoing American Dream, but today he tells the whole world that the American Dream is not so far away.” (çŽ‹å½¦é›ª 69)
From the above analysis, we can conclude that at the national race level, Barack Obama also achieved America’s old-century dream that “all are free, all are created equal and all have the right to purse happiness.” An African American could run for presidency and was finally elected th
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