BOWLING GREEN, Ohio — It’s not hard to figure out that we live in an increasingly polarized country. From energy policy to how we tax citizens, Romney and Obama can’t agree on much. At his rally on Sept. 26 in Toledo, the phrase “my opponent” was used in more than a few instances. Obama singled out Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney several times, explaining how Romney believes this or plans to do that. Obviously partisan and obviously effective.

But there was one statement Obama made that may have shed more light than he realized on the fundamental difference between today’s Democrats and Republicans.

“Here in America, we believe we’re in this thing together.”

At first glance, that might seem like an idea both parties would agree with. But in a New York Times article published in early August, Firmin DeBrabander, an associate professor of philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, argues that Republicans hold onto the idea of self-determination. Depending on the government is unfathomable, and a spirit of individualism always prevails. One line in particular stuck with me. “We are not the sole authors of our destiny, each of us; our destinies are entangled — messily, unpredictably.” I think a substantial percentage of our country would disagree with that statement.

Trust in the federal government always hovers somewhere around 60 percent. Most peoples’ feelings about our government — myself included — aren’t particularly favorable. So there’s a tendency for many to dismiss the government’s role in our lives. We can’t survive in this world without at least some governmental assistance, but the penchant of some to believe they can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps is almost admirable in a way.

And that same way of thinking applies to the most recent Romney-Obama spat. A week ago, at a forum hosted by Univision, Obama said, “The most important lesson I’ve learned is you can’t change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside.”

Romney then turned Obama’s statement into his rallying cry, and at an event later the same day, he changed his speech to say, “I can change Washington, I will change Washington. We’ll get the job done from the inside. Republicans and Democrats will come together. He can’t do it.”

Obama’s response at today’s speech: “We have to change Washington from the outside, with the help of ordinary Americans making their voices heard.”

That statement may seem like a simple sound bite from a pandering politician, but I think it reflects a fundamental difference in the way most Republicans and Democrats view themselves. Romney believes it’s the president’s job, and the president’s job alone, to change Washington. Like many Republicans, he hangs on to this outdated idea of pure individualism and presidential effectiveness.

Contrast this with Obama, who openly admits he needs help. To him, “ordinary Americans” include everyone living in this country. From young, debt-ridden college students to wealthy Wall Street bankers, changing Washington is a process everyone needs to work toward. Every person affects another somehow. For example, the Affordable Care Act may be Obama’s way of helping those who have pre-existing conditions get insurance, and they, in turn, can make their voices heard and participate to make our government change for the better.

In his speech, Obama vowed to never turn Medicare into a voucher program, to create more manufacturing jobs in America and to reduce the deficit by calling on those making more than $250,000 a year to pay a greater share of taxes.

These are basic principles of today’s Democratic party, but they reflect completely different values as well. Obama fully acknowledges that his role as president doesn’t necessarily mean he’s solely responsible for changing Washington into what we want it to be. This sentiment was clearly reflected in his speech today.

Romney and the Republican party’s individualistic goals are admirable. It’s a way for me and other people disillusioned with politics to see the current Republican party in a more favorable light. But this “bootstrap” quality is simply unrealistic for today’s world. We need every citizen’s political participation to influence the policies that help us pay off our loans, buy houses and receive medical treatment. We shouldn’t have to face this world alone, especially in today’s economic state. President Obama gets this. Romney, however, is still stuck in a mindset that doesn’t apply to the problems we face today.

Adrienne Roberts can be reached at adrirobe@umich.edu.
Follow her on Twitter @AdrRoberts.

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