In a few days, President Obama will deliver his State of the Union Address. Right now, Martin Luther King Day is upon us. Both events suggest that it is a particularly appropriate moment for every American to stop and think about our society.
As a nation, have we made progress in realizing the vision articulated by Dr. King? Are we closer or further from living the virtues he described? In 1980, Ronald Reagan famously asked "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" What percentage of Americans would answer that question affirmatively right now?
America today is characterized by excess, anger, mistrust, polarization, increasing pessimism, self-interest, and a lack of accountability. Of even greater concern, we are becoming a nation that is accepting the unacceptable.
We face an immediate economic emergency that requires urgent action. We can't wait to help workers and families and communities who are struggling right now -- who don't know if their job or their retirement will be there tomorrow; who don't know if next week's paycheck will cover this month's bills.
With an unemployment rate now in double digits and at least 50% higher than the level in October 2008, President Obama says "there is only so much government can do." Meanwhile, millions of people are suffering in a crisis of our own making. A crisis that is the result of what Paul Krugman recently called "the dysfunctional nature of our own financial system." Yes, the president has proposed additional spending to create jobs, but few authorities expect that it will have a significant impact on our actual level of employment. But, few believe this program will have a meaningful impact. Robert Reich writes, "the chances of unemployment being 10 percent next November are overwhelmingly high."
At the same time, the Administration's housing program is a complete failure, and the nation faces massive foreclosures. As joblessness continues, one in eight mortgages is in default or foreclosure, and half of all mortgages may be underwater within a year. There do not appear to be any serious proposals to keep people in their homes as owners, so an even greater housing crisis may occur later this year or in 2011. It's the elephant in the room that no one wants to discuss.
In the era of the New Deal, American ingenuity led to a series of job creation programs, social security, the FDIC (which eliminated the scourge of bank-runs), ultimately the GI Bill (perhaps the greatest investment in human capital the nation has ever made). The Roosevelt Administration was also committed to keeping people in their homes as owners, and the precursor to the modern-day 30 year mortgage was one of the central innovations of the era.
How does our response to the Great Recession compare to the age of FDR? To date, the most innovative response to the financial crisis, and the ensuing national misery, has been....TARP?
I refuse to believe that our current situation is the best that America can accomplish. I refuse to believe that we have truly harnessed the legendary ingenuity and resourcefulness of the American nation. I also believe there is a way to move forward and dramatically revitalize our suffering nation.
The president must recognize that more of the same is not good enough. He must stop accepting the idea that our nation is limited in what it can accomplish. He must also realize that difficult moments require strong leadership, not moderation or a search for consensus. Great leaders articulate an unwavering vision that causes people to believe they can accomplish more than they thought possible, and creates a sense that each of us has a responsibility that transcends our own well-being.
What if President Obama were to step up to the podium at his State of the Union message and challenge the nation to achieve 3% unemployment within two years? What if he committed the future of his presidency to realizing this goal? What if he said that America is only America when we have jobs for people that want to work and opportunities for the generation of young Americans that is now threatened with a paucity of prospects? He could create a new sense of possibilities, and awaken a hunger inside almost everyone to ensure we remain a great nation.
Today, it's easy to oppose any job creation efforts. There is no clear goal, and no stated vision. We are increasingly accepting a two-tier society: those with jobs and those who are forgotten. There is also no clear sense that creating private sector jobs is an act of patriotism. The president has the opportunity to shift these dynamics. By articulating a vision of a better nation, he can stimulate action and bring out the best in our society.
FDR brought hope to a miserable country when he promised, and delivered, "action and action now." Roosevelt had no clear plan of how he would accomplish his agenda; but he was determined to relentlessly experiment until he succeeded.
Winston Churchill rejuvenated the British nation when he declared, "We shall never surrender," despite what seemed like impossible odds. It's worth noting the absolute resolve and determination in Chruchill's words, which propelled the British people forward:
...we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender...
In a later era, John Kennedy did not know how America would land a man on the moon and return him safely "Before this decade is out" when he challenged the nation to accomplish this seemingly impossible task. But, in his speech before Congress, Kennedy did say:
I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshaled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment.
We often forget that at the time of Kennedy's speech, America was a nation shaken badly by Soviet advances in space. JFK responded with strength and determination to restore confidence. By stating a clear goal, President Kennedy created action and momentum.
Moreover, I believe that Kennedy's description of our inate resources and talent applies, as well, to the nation today. We need Barack Obama to offer this same commitment to America, and to support his words with swift actions and righteous anger.
A few weeks ago I was a guest on WNYC's Leonard Lopate show. At the end of the interview, I was asked why no political movement had grown up around reinventing our nation -- if I believed it was so critical. I paused, leaned back in my chair, and said it had: America voted for change we can all believe in.
In October 2008, candidate Obama said:
This country and the dream it represents are being tested in a way that we haven't seen in nearly a century. And future generations will judge ours by how we respond to this test. Will they say that this was a time when America lost its way and its purpose? ...
Or will they say that this was another one of those moments when America overcame? When we battled back from adversity by recognizing that common stake that we have in each other's success?
I have not forgotten what these powerful words or what our nation sought on election day in 2008. After one year in office, I hope that President Obama remembers as well.