Elections 2012: Who Knew Obama Drove an Indian Car? A Values Debate

Now it’s the Democratic Party’s turn to make its case about why American voters should re-elect President Barack Obama. It’s hard to imagine a better kick-off than First Lady Michelle Obama talking about the every day challenges and values of the man himself.

Talk about relating with a single image: Who knew Obama drove an Indian car?

In her Tuesday night speech, Michelle Obama recalled “the guy who’d picked me up for our dates in a car that was so rusted out, I could actually see the pavement going by through a hole in the passenger side door.”

A rusted-out car is a familiar metaphor. But it’s about more than an old, beat up car. It’s a family hoping to drive forward. “Barack and I were both raised by families who didn’t have much in the way of money or material possessions but who had given us something far more valuable – their unconditional love, their unflinching sacrifice, and the chance to go places they had never imagined for themselves,” she said. The vehicle for that family – like so many across Indian Country – was a college education for our children. “My brother and I finally made it to college, nearly all of our tuition came from student loans and grants. But my dad still had to pay a tiny portion of that tuition himself. And every semester, he was determined to pay that bill right on time, even taking out loans when he fell short.”

The president and first lady, like so many young people today, ended that educational journey in debt. But their debt (even though it was more than their mortgage and took a long time to pay off) was manageable.

That is no longer the case. Total student debt now exceeds $1 trillion, an amount greater than is owed on credit cards. And neither political party has come up with an answer to how we pay for education. That’s unfortunate because it impacts everything from the country’s health care decisions – new doctors must pick a specialty because that practice pays so much more – to long delays in buying that first home because of debt-to-income ratios.

But even if the answers are not out there yet, the Democrats made their case about how their values will help sort out where to go.

Tuesday’s keynote speaker, San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, put it this way: “Mitt Romney, quite simply, doesn't get it. A few months ago he visited a university in Ohio and gave the students there a little entrepreneurial advice. Start a business,' he said. But how? 'Borrow money if you have to from your parents,' he told them. Gee – why didn't I think of that?”

Castro said Romney is “a good guy. He just has no idea how good he’s had it.”

“Texas,” Castro said, “may be the one place where people actually still have bootstraps, and we expect folks to pull themselves up by them. But we also recognize there are some things we can't do alone. We have to come together and invest in opportunity today for prosperity tomorrow.”

That is a key economic issue for Indian country, too, where tribal enterprises often outnumber individual businesses. There is a different idea about bootstraps when hotels, shopping malls, or, yes, casinos are owned by a tribal community, not an individual who’s motivated for profit.

Now it's worth asking: So did Romney ever drive an Indian car?

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: marktrahant@thecedarsgroup.org.