Obama Refines The American Dream

In this era of the X factor, and American Idol, in which fast-forward versions of the American Dream are presented to us all on a daily basis, Barack Obama is starting an important and sensible debate about social mobility.

In amidst the disappointment of his stances on telecoms immunity, the death penalty and abortion, this is an issue on which he is living up to his billing as someone "who won't just tell you what you want to hear, but what you need to know."

In his remarks to the black community, he is reminding people of all races that social mobility is enabled by social responsibility. That family support, education, and hard work are the key to lifting people out of poverty, and into good jobs.

There is a danger that the paradigms of pop culture have become the model of the American Dream for a generation of young people. Barack Obama is addressing that danger.

"You can't find a job, unless you are a really, really good basketball player -- which most of you brothas are not. I know you think you are, but you're not. You are overrated in your own mind. You will not play in the NBA. You are probably not that good a rapper. Maybe you are the next Lil' Wayne, but probably not, in which case you need to stay in school."

Sure, there is electoral hay to be made in the "Sister Souljah moment" these comments provoked, but that should not detract from the important message Obama is getting out there.

The dei ex machina of television extreme make over shows (of home or body), talent contests, sporting success stories, and pop star biographies present a model of social mobility that undermine engagement with the real problems facing the contemporary poor -- be they black, white, Asian or Hispanic.

The media infatuation with the fairy tales of celebrity disguise the fact that those problems are structural, socio-economic, and cultural. But they also offer a false alternative to individual determination, parental responsibility, community ethics, and engagement with education as the means of overcoming them.

Here, at least, Barack Obama is looking like he's remembered that "the time has come for a President who will be honest about the choices and the challenges we face; who will listen to you and learn from you even when we disagree; who won't just tell you what you want to hear, but what you need to know."

More of that.