Let’s Take a Lesson from the President’s Vision

Federal Budget
Tax Policy

The political class has spent a couple of days furiously squabbling about the value and significance of President Obama’s second inaugural address. But if you look beneath the agendas and the spin, the president’s speech offers a great lesson for children’s advocacy communications: your vision of success is as important as your policy proposals.

The inaugural address uplifts the uniquely American values – fairness and opportunity, industry and community, strength and freedom – that define our “founding creed.” He uses these values to frame a picture of the America we could be. And as the speech unfolds, he shows – not tells, but shows – how that better America will look, using children’s issues to illustrate his vision.

The president doesn’t just talk of “fairness” or “opportunity.” He shows us what those values look like through real people’s real lives: “We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.” And he doesn’t just call for a stronger focus on children’s safety and well-being. He challenges us to accept shared responsibility for constant progress toward those goals: “Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia, to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm.”

Why should children’s advocates follow the president’s example? First, articulating your vision starts the conversation with “why” instead of “how.” We must talk about doubling the Child Tax Credit or strengthening Medicaid. But those are just means to our ends: lifting children out of poverty and keeping them healthy. Offering a vision of healthy kids in strong families brings policymakers onboard with where we want to go, so they’re more receptive to hear about how we want to get there. And second, as the presidents remarks illustrate, offering a vision grounds our work in our values. And it’s harder for policymakers to dismiss us when they share our values, even if they aren’t yet onboard with our policy ideas.

It’s no accident that the president chose a visionary theme for a speech delivered on Martin Luther King Day. Like Dr. King, he knows that action isn’t inspired by statistics, by abstract ideas, or clever phrases. People are moved to act because they can see a better future within reach, and they realize that they want to be a part of making that dream come true.