Any doubt that Barack Obama wants to enter into a new version of the 1950s vanished the other night during the State of the Union. He said so virtually in his first words:
We gather tonight knowing that this generation of heroes has made the United States safer and more respected around the world. (Applause.) For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq. (Applause.) For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country. (Applause.) Most of al Qaeda’s top lieutenants have been defeated. The Taliban’s momentum has been broken, and some troops in Afghanistan have begun to come home.
These achievements are a testament to the courage, selflessness and teamwork of America’s Armed Forces. At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together.
Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example. (Applause.) Think about the America within our reach: A country that leads the world in educating its people. An America that attracts a new generation of high-tech manufacturing and high-paying jobs. A future where we’re in control of our own energy, and our security and prosperity aren’t so tied to unstable parts of the world. An economy built to last, where hard work pays off, and responsibility is rewarded.
We can do this. I know we can, because we’ve done it before. At the end of World War II, when another generation of heroes returned home from combat, they built the strongest economy and middle class the world has ever known. (Applause.) My grandfather, a veteran of Patton’s Army, got the chance to go to college on the GI Bill. My grandmother, who worked on a bomber assembly line, was part of a workforce that turned out the best products on Earth.
The two of them shared the optimism of a nation that had triumphed over a depression and fascism. They understood they were part of something larger; that they were contributing to a story of success that every American had a chance to share -- the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement.
Those were indeed inspiring words, and we shall see in a moment that Obama has in fact been trying to move in that direction for years; but the analogy, sadly, is false. While the individual soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown even more dedication than the veterans of the Second World War, measured by the number and length of the tours many of them have spent in combat, they are a tiny minority of the population compared to the ten million men who returned home in 1945. President Obama did not mention the GI bill or the housing programs that made life easier for returning veterans, much less the 91% marginal rates that topped the tax code. And while the problem in 1945 was to maintain the full employment that the war had brought about, today we are struggling with the long-term decline of employment in America driven by market forces and by a business ethos that no longer cares about the impact of decisions upon American society. One of the most important pieces of recent journalism appeared last Sunday: this New York Times account of how Apple decided to locate most of its manufacturing and assembly plants outside the US, most notably in China. It holds out little hope that things will be reversed any time soon.
An equally important piece of reportage was Ryan Lizza's piece on Obama in The New Yorker, drawing on internal White House documents, many of them including check marks and marginal notes from the President himself. The President and his staff have been entirely sincere about striking a non-partisan pose, appealing to moderate voters across the United States--I am tempted to say, all three of them--and finding ways to cut the budget. The trend continued in the state of the union. Any serious attempt to move us away from fossil fuels is obviously dead: the President opened up thousands of square miles of ocean to offshore drilling and extolled our natural gas reserves. We have apparently found the solution to our long-standing energy problems: allow the major financial institutions to bid the price of oil high enough to make domestic production profitable. The President also talked about cutting back regulations--which most of the people I know in business do believe have become much too cumbersome--and about reducing corporate taxes, which are already, in real terms, very low. He drew a surprising amount of perfunctory applause from John Boehner, sitting behind him, but I doubt there is the slightest chance of the Republican Party in Congress passing anything he puts forth. His relationship to them remains similar to that of Andrew Johnson, even though he, unlike Andrew Johnson, is more than willing to meet his radical Republicans half way. How all this will play out in November is hard to say. RealClearPolitics has just run a poll showing that every single presidential candidate has a higher disapproval than approval rating. The President's differential is the smallest, a mere 2%, and the Republican Party is paying the price both for its new style of campaigning and for the Citizens United decision as its competitors devour one another. But Obama will not get--and does not seem to want--a sweeping mandate.
Last but not least, the President has been genuinely committed to debt reduction. The Republicans turned down his grand bargain last summer, but if he wins again they may have no choice but to accept. The Pentagon really faces tremendous cuts. Our last great foreign adventure is winding down and official Pentagon policy says it will not be repeated: there will be no more "long-term, large-scale stability operations," the euphemism for the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The federal budget moves according to the generational cycle that Strauss and Howe identified, and our periodic national crises always show a huge increase in the national debt. So it has been this time. The debt doubled under George W. Bush and has been increasing even more rapidly ever since as a result of the economic crisis. It is nowhere near as big in real terms as it was in 1945, as I pointed out some months ago, or probably in 1865 either, but it has still become a center of national concern. The terrible thing, this time, is that we have no great achievements to show for it--not even a renewal of belief in our institutions. And now the public is weary of crusades.
The course of the President's first term, as laid out both by Ron Suskind's book which I discussed last week and by Lizza's article, effectively rules out a broad new crusade at home to put people back to work and seriously curtail the power of institutions like big banks and health insurance companies. And to the extent that global warming indeed results from burning fossil fuels--something of which I personally am not certain--it will continue. Yet I do not think the kind of unity the President dreams of is anywhere near, whether he is re-elected or not. In the campaigns of the Gilded Age, Democrats continued to label Republicans the party of tyranny and Republicans called Democrats the party of treason for decades after the war. The President has unilaterally disarmed the Democrats in the similar battle that is being waged today. We shall see whether he can bring the battle to an end, or whether his premature cease-fire will instead lead to new victories for the other side, with incalculable consequences.
At the conclusion of his speech the President returned to where he had started.
One of my proudest possessions is the flag that the SEAL Team took with them on the mission to get bin Laden. On it are each of their names. Some may be Democrats. Some may be Republicans. But that doesn’t matter. Just like it didn’t matter that day in the Situation Room, when I sat next to Bob Gates -- a man who was George Bush’s defense secretary -- and Hillary Clinton -- a woman who ran against me for president.
All that mattered that day was the mission. No one thought about politics. No one thought about themselves. One of the young men involved in the raid later told me that he didn’t deserve credit for the mission. It only succeeded, he said, because every single member of that unit did their job -- the pilot who landed the helicopter that spun out of control; the translator who kept others from entering the compound; the troops who separated the women and children from the fight; the SEALs who charged up the stairs. More than that, the mission only succeeded because every member of that unit trusted each other -- because you can’t charge up those stairs, into darkness and danger, unless you know that there’s somebody behind you, watching your back.
So it is with America. Each time I look at that flag, I’m reminded that our destiny is stitched together like those 50 stars and those 13 stripes. No one built this country on their own. This nation is great because we built it together. This nation is great because we worked as a team. This nation is great because we get each other’s backs. And if we hold fast to that truth, in this moment of trial, there is no challenge too great; no mission too hard. As long as we are joined in common purpose, as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, and our future is hopeful, and the state of our Union will always be strong.
To rebuild the nation together, I fear, would take far more unity, inspiration and sacrifice than we seem to have available. The re-election of Barack Obama would be far better than any alternative; but we shall continue to mark time on the issues most critical to the country. The State of our Union is not strong, but perilously tenuous. May it slowly knit it self together again as a new generation moves upward in the workplace. Mine, sadly, has had its chance.