Challenge to shift from 'me' to 'we' resonates in nation

Bill Clinton's exhortation to think "we" instead of "me" appears to have struck a chord among twentysomethings, middle-aged baby boomers and golden oldsters.

"It's the morning after the 1980s and we are seeing what a binge went on the night before," said Andrew J. Cherlin, a sociologist at the Johns Hopkins University.


If the country's attitude about public and private responsibility shifts to a more "what's in it for us" view, it could replace the self-centeredness of the 1980s with a collective creed that values service and commitment, say political pundits, social scientists and educators interviewed by telephone around the country.

These observers say if the success of Mr. Clinton's economic plan rests with marshaling a sense of "we-ness," then, in the parlance of a popular commercial: "Just Do It."


"His call for sacrifice resonated with a lot of people," Mr. Cherlin said. "Why is this? I think people are ready to do something for others if they perceive that everyone is sacrificing, too."

But not everyone agrees that Americans are ready to meet the challenge Mr. Clinton made in his speech Wednesday night: "My fellow Americans, the test of this plan cannot be what is in it for me, it has got to be what is in it for us."

"The 'we' he's talking about is . . . future generations," said Ron Walters, chairman of the political science department at Howard University. "People politically tend to respond to their immediate interests."

"Unless he can do a job of enlightening people . . . he's not going to be able to sell this."

To New York author Marshall Blonsky, President Clinton's push to renew the conscience and rhetoric of a nation is "attempting almost the impossible."

But it is worth the try, said Mr. Blonsky, author of "American Mythologies" and a teacher at the New School for Social Research in New York City.

"The whole concept of citizenship has to change, given the age that we live in," said Mr. Blonsky.

"At the root of the word citizen is the word co-citizen, to be a citizen with another. You [are] engaged in mutual concern. That's what's ended in America. What Clinton is trying to do is to restore something of the original meaning to citizenship in America."


xTC But is the country ready to embrace this brand of citizenship?

Harvard sociologist David Ries man believes the signs of change are already present.

"Just look at the surveys of college freshmen: More were engaged in protests before they entered college; they put less emphasis on money; they have a greater interest in public service," he says.

Baby boomers can relate to the president's call because, like him, midlife brings another set of priorities and perspectives, said Lillian Maresch, of the Minneapolis-based consulting firm, Generation Insights.

"They are feeling sandwiched between their parents and their growing children.

"The whole 'me' perspective has evolved as the boomer has entered midlife into a more of a shared 'we' perspective," said Ms. Maresch, herself a boomer at 38.


"There is a new sense of social perspective, a genuine desire of community to take care of one's own children . . . to ensure your children's future will be safe and prosperous and lastly to take care of your parents."

But Mr. Riesman, the Harvard sociologist, wonders whether the kind of leadership needed to push programs of service is present within the community.

"Service requires leaders who are prepared to be strict, to listen to charges of racism and sexism or what have you and still maintain their sanguinity," said Mr. Riesman.

Unlike the yuppies who preceded them, some members of the twentysomething generation already have begun service for others, whether it is to lure America's talented college graduates into school classrooms, to marshal a fight against the deficit or develop their own Peace Corps-style programs in the inner cities.

"We need to realize that all of our futures are tied together and until each and every person basically has an equal opportunity to achieve, then we won't really have a nation which fulfills its true potential," saidWendy Kopp, 25, of Teach For America, a New York group that recruits recent college graduates to be new teachers. "It is philosophical, but it's what totally drives me."

Like President Clinton, Jon Cowan believes the consequences of not putting the group first are too onerous to contemplate.


"In simplest terms, we are headed toward a generational war if we don't become 'we' and not 'me.' You can tick off the whole list of fiscal burdens that are falling in the lap of the next generation," said Mr. Cowan, the 27-year-old co-founder of Lead or Leave, a Washington group formed to fight the deficit.

"The fiscal crisis that this country faces is our generation's Vietnam. It's quieter. It's harder to touch. But the consequences are real."

To succeed both economically and philosophically, President Clinton faces roadblocks less tangible than Congress or the special interests that prey upon it. Envy, languor, cynicism, mistrust in government -- these are but a few.

"Rebuilding trust is the absolute key to making a good society," said Robert N. Bellah, a professor at University of California at Berkeley and author of "Habits of the Heart."

"My fear with Clinton is he is too surrounded by economists and political scientists and their technocratic

vision," said Mr. Bellah, who described the president's State of the Union speech as "enormously powerful."


"They think making us more competitive economically is going to solve all the problems. The problems in this society go far beyond the economy. . . .

"While a president certainly can't change the society by talking, the bully pulpit idea is real.

"We have had great, what I have called, teaching presidents. They help to see us in a different way. I would like to see Clinton do more of that."

Mr. Clinton's predecessor in the White House, George Bush, made attempts at cultivating at a "we" mentality with his "kinder, gentler nation" theme, said Georgetown University Professor Mark E. Warren. But he never delivered on that theme, Mr. Warren said.

And the public will have the same concern about Mr. Clinton's ability to deliver.

"Is this guy going to place himself at the service of the 'we' or is this one more interested party using 'we' rhetoric to cover over the agendas of special interests?" asked Mr. Warren.


"What Clinton has to overcome is the cynicism, and I think that's a big if."