While the future of the country remains entirely uncertain, the State of the Union left no doubt whatever as to what Barack Obama wants for America and for his Presidency. It is certainly not what either his more fervent supporters (like myself) or his paranoid detractors expected, and it may well be impossible of achievement; but it fits, in a rather extraordinary way, into Strauss and Howe's theory of generations, and it might hold the key to our future. Barack Obama is indeed nostalgic, but not, as Fox News would have it, for the glorious days of 1960s radicalism that he is supposed to be reliving under the influence of his purported friend Bill Ayers. Instead, he wants to recover the 1950s and perhaps the early 1960s, the last High, a real golden age, in some respects at least, in American life, an era of technological progress and consensus. Two things, however, stand in his way. First, there is as yet no evidence that the Republican party, now ascendant, has any interest in his vision. Second and more importantly, the country still has gigantic problems that cannot be solved without a struggle--a struggle which he is now renouncing.
The tenor of Obama's speech has been noted by almost everyone, and only a few quotes will capture it. "We are part of the American family," he said. "We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people; that we share common hopes and a common creed; that the dreams of a little girl in Tucson are not so different than those of our own children, and that they all deserve the chance to be fulfilled.
"That, too, is what sets us apart as a nation.
"Now, by itself, this simple recognition won’t usher in a new era of cooperation. What comes of this moment is up to us. What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow.
"I believe we can. And I believe we must. That’s what the people who sent us here expect of us. With their votes, they’ve determined that governing will now be a shared responsibility between parties. New laws will only pass with support from Democrats and Republicans. We will move forward together, or not at all -– for the challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics. . . .
"The future is ours to win. But to get there, we can’t just stand still. As Robert Kennedy told us, 'The future is not a gift. It is an achievement.' Sustaining the American Dream has never been about standing pat. It has required each generation to sacrifice, and struggle, and meet the demands of a new age.
"And now it’s our turn. We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. (Applause.) We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business. We need to take responsibility for our deficit and reform our government. That’s how our people will prosper. That’s how we’ll win the future."
The President then stressed the need for investment and innovation to compete in a changing world, and then, in what was clearly intended to be the headline phrase of the speech, identified this as the "Sputnik moment" of this generation. Meanwhile, he was extraordinarily upbeat about the nation's economic situation, showing a satisfaction that Herbert Hoover never pretended to. "We are poised for progress," he said. "Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again." And that, indeed, represents the economic achievement of his team and especially of the Federal Reserve: by flooding financial markets with all the nearly-free money they want, they have completely disconnected the financial system from the economy at large. Wall Street's capital used to come from the earnings of productive American workers and corporations. Now it comes from the Federal Reserve at interest rates of about 1%. All will be well, the President suggests, if we can start focusing on innovation and quiet our voices. How he has settled upon this strategy is a fascinating question which, I am convinced, has a great deal to do with the course of his own life.
When Strauss and Howe wrote their books in the 1990s, they did not anticipate that a Generation Xer would be in the White House at this moment. In the previous crises in our national life the country had been led by relatively younger members of the current Prophet generations, the Transcendental Abraham Lincoln (born 1809) and the Missionary Franklin Roosevelt (b. 1882.) These men, like today's Baby Boomers, learned in their childhood of the great and violent achievements of their immediate forbears (the Revolution and the Constitution in Lincoln's case, the Civil War in FDR's), yet grew up in times of peace and relative prosperity. When they entered the White House in times of great crisis, both specifically compared the situations they faced to the nation's earlier trials, and promised to emerge from them victorious with our freedoms both reconfirmed and expanded. Now in fact, Baby Boomers did occupy the White House from 1993 to 2009. Bill Clinton, who had quite an untypical childhood for a Boomer, had no hopes of transforming America: he was if anything less of a reformer than Obama. George W. Bush, on the other hand, wanted to emulate the great deeds of the Roosevelt Administration and transform large parts of the world. Being a Baby Boomer, as I often noted during his presidency, he thought he could do so cheaply and painlessly, and he was not capable, apparently, of the sustained concentration that would have allowed him to set realistic goals. In addition, while Lincoln and FDR had realized that the government and its revenue had to be enlarged and strengthened to deal with a crisis, Bush was ideologically committed to cutting it. And thus, for the first time, the United States in 2007 entered a tremendous economic crisis with an existing huge permanent deficit. That has made a truly effective response to the crisis--one that would actually put large numbers of people back to work--impossible. We now face the worst long-term unemployment problem that we have seen since the Great Depression and although it is less serous than it was then, we have, this time, no strategy to deal with it at all.
Now Barack Obama, born in August 1961, was too young to have remembered the confident, consensus era of the 1950s. In one of the most revealing passages in Dreams From my Father, he mentions that stories of his father were inextricably mixed up in his mind with the Kennedy period, that last era of hope, innocence and consensus which shattered--like Obama's own life--just Obama was becoming conscious. Many Gen Xers had extremely difficult childhood's, and Obama's was as tumultuous and disorienting as anyone's. His father's death was followed by his mother's marriage to an Indonesian, the birth of a new sibling, and a sojourn in that country. Then it was back to Hawaii to live with his grandparents, who provided a taste of the stability they had known as young adults. Suddenly, in High School, he found himself catapulted into the local elite--Punahu School is to Hawaii what Andover is to Massachusetts--and thence to the embraces of the mainland elite, first on the west coast (Occidental College) and then on the East (Columbia and Harvard Law School.) Somehow, aside from a few typical youthful pranks in high school, he kept his equanimity through all this and remained a dedicated student and a young man who could get along with almost anyone. That could not have been easy, but it is the lot of many among his generation. After law school he worked as a community organizer in a Chicago neighborhood devastated by plant closings. He described this experience in Dreams from My Father, but without ever suggesting that radical economic reform was needed to rebuild the citizens' of the communities lives. That, indeed, is one of the astonishing omissions from that book.
And this leads me to the other astonishing omission from the State of the Union (and even more from the preview that was circulated to campaign contributors like myself): the complete failure to speak directly to the unemployed, the Americans who have lost their homes through foreclosure, or the poor. "That world has changed. And for many, the change has been painful. I’ve seen it in the shuttered windows of once booming factories, and the vacant storefronts on once busy Main Streets. I’ve heard it in the frustrations of Americans who’ve seen their paychecks dwindle or their jobs disappear -– proud men and women who feel like the rules have been changed in the middle of the game." That was his only reference to the millions whose lives have been shattered during the last few years and to whom today's economic statistics give little or no reason for hope--and even that reference spoke about them, not to them. One has to wonder whether he expects them, like himself as a child, to suck it up and deal with it. Franklin Roosevelt realized his contemporaries' lives had been shattered by forces behind their control--including, as he never tired of repeating, the greed of the wealthy--and that they needed active, sustained help. In today's New York Times Charles Blow points out that Obama's failure to refer specifically to the poor is almost unprecedented in a Democratic state of the union message.
Another interesting detail about Obama appears in this week's Time. Not too long ago he evidently hosted a second meeting of Presidential historians. (I do not have enough presidential credentials, apparently, to make the list.) The first such meeting, in the spring of 2009, I have been informed, spent a good deal of time on warnings to the President that war could destroy his hopes for progressive reforms. This time, the President wanted to hear, more than anything else, about Ronald Reagan. Now Ronald Reagan occupies a very special place in the hears of Generation X, whose oldest members were turning 20 when he came into office. He was the first President they had heard speak with confidence and optimism about the future--even though he presided initially, like Obama, over a terrible recession, and did not leave America's working class better off when he left office than when he came in. Obama now seems to be treating our profound economic troubles like a move to Indonesia: they are painful, but we must endure them and put our noses to the grindstone. Meanwhile, he would like, like Reagan, to cheer us up and get us focused on a more hopeful future--forgetting, apparently, that Reagan's actual policies started us down the road that led to our current economic hell.
Obama, like Clinton--whose former associates he is turning to more frequently than ever now--is above all a politician, and that is nothing to complain about. His pollsters and the election results have evidently convinced him that traditional Democratic responses to the crisis are indeed complete non-starters in today's political world, and he thus has no choice but to argue that the reforms he already managed to pass were more than enough to do the job. But it is not at all clear to me that his new consensus strategy can work. Yes, it delighted David Brooks, as I knew it would, and it probably would have brought cheers from Tom Friedman as well, but he seems to be on one of his periodic book leaves. But the Republican Party is now in a more revolutionary mood than ever. The new House majority wants to block the President at every turn. Representative Darrell Issa, whose most interesting background was laid out in great detail a couple of weeks ago by Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker, plans to harass the Administration with ceaseless investigations. More importantly, the House majority is quite likely to create a worldwide financial crisis by refusing to raise the debt ceiling in just a couple of months, and the Republicans have plans to destroy much of the existing federal government. Simultaneously, Republican legislators and governors are planning the kinds of draconian cuts in their work force that did so much harm in various countries in the early stages of the Great Depression. Within the next six months we could face a new political and economic crisis in this country--not to mention the rather striking developments taking place in other parts of the world, which I must save for another time. In one respect and one only Obama has brought his vision of a return to the late 1950s and early 1960s to life: the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, removing a critical barrier to legal equality similar to the racial barriers that fell back then. The freedom to participate equally in today's economy, however, remains a very mixed blessing.
The political basis for Obama's strategy, in short, seems to be lacking--but that really is the less important problem he faces. We cannot move to an era of true consensus without a real and determined effort to solve our economic problems, and we are no longer even making any. The real question now is whether things are going to get worse. Did the George W. Bush Administration--like those of Lincoln and Andrew Johnson--actually create a new America which, despite huge financial and economic problems, can become the basis for a new consensus under Barack Obama? Can we limp along for a decade with unemployment between 8 and 10 per cent? Can political rhetoric moderate, as Grant wanted so badly, and can the parties start to cooperate? Or are we likely to face a new economic downturn and financial crisis, with consequences that we can only guess?
I cannot decide, actually, which alternative I prefer. Last Wednesday I met my Generations in Film class, composed almost entirely of middle-of-the-road generation Xers in the military, for the last time. Several had written papers addressing this very point, and all their papers expected--and in one case, actually welcomed--another crisis which would finally force the country to face reality, pull together, and do something about our problems. Yet as I see it, the destructive voices on the right are so much stronger today than progressive ones that I fear what a new crisis would do both economically and politically. In the long sweep of history, it would be a great setback to stabilize things where they are. But the history of other nations shows that other, much worse outcomes, are possible as well.