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Hot Dogs and Beans: Obama and the American Dream

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Unlike President Obama, I am going to be straight with you: The jobs are not coming back. A high unemployment rate (not even including the under-employed) will be with us for at least a decade to come. It will take that long before investment in research and development and a more rigorous education system, targeted toward the jobs we still have but cannot fill (precision machine work) and toward future technology, begins to bear fruit. If this minute we tack in the direction of these jobs, still at least one, possibly two, generations for most of their lives will never have the well-paid work that in the second half of the last century we Americans took for granted. President Obama and his administration have the wheel of the ocean liner of state, but like all large vessels she is slow and unwieldy to turn about. Americans have not felt the shift, therefore, and only a few wonks, seeking to chart, have credited Obama for beginning to change course.

The implications beggar imagination, much less policy. Lest we shred our shared sense of national identity -- and this well could happen to a body politic already weakened and riven -- we must shape a new social compact. Shaping is a process and a journey. It takes place through trial and error, through engagement by families and communities and through great leadership. This is what Barack Obama by the end of the presidential election meant by "change." My observation is that Obama, when he decided to run, knew he was a man who could effect enormous change, which he (and we) knew the country needed; however, he couldn't divine exactly what that change might look like, although he (and we) knew the ingredients for it: better education, new immigration and energy policies, health care reform, entitlement reform. We can deduce that his sense of his mission was inchoate because during the campaigns he immensely complicated his (and our) political and financial future by insisting, as he need not have done, that the United States had to win in Afghanistan.

So it's not surprising that Obama has had his own struggles with "the vision thing" even as he spoke eloquently and passionately about change. Ironically, it was this very eloquence that deafened supporters to his specific policy prescriptions (to which he has adhered for the most part, with the exception of Guantanamo, the closing of which I always took to be aspirational). It was this very eloquence that encouraged supporters to interpret Obama's change as the change THEY wanted. This is partly why "professionals on the left" assumed that Obama was one of them. This is why -- personal aside here -- I did not go to Washington for Obama's Inauguration, much less The Huffington Post Inaugural Ball. I figured it would be really alienating and depressing to be surrounded by people who had never really listened to Obama and who, I just knew, would be disillusioned within the year.

For the first time, not quite two years into the Obama presidency, we have a sense of what this great change is going to be. Today, as the first new health insurance regulations become law, what will likely be a half-century of American health care reform begins. Yesterday we were told that the recession has ended. What out of the rubble remains? Americans' net worth has fallen. Housing construction and sales are at an all-time low. The administration's efforts to end foreclosures have failed. Fourteen percent of us live in poverty -- the highest rate in fifteen years. Education, which used to be a way out and up, no longer guarantees a job. And joblessness, as epidemic and intractable as the new bedbug invasion, lives with us now.

Here is the bedrock of change. We Americans are less wealthy. But for the foreseeable future we are going to spend more (like on health care) of that less we have in order to be comfortable sharing the same boat. We are taking this course counterintuitively, but in the reasonable hope that in the more distant future we will be spending less while having more. This is the beginning of our new social compact. This is the new American Dream. It acknowledges the reality of a deeply interconnected world. It is no longer, as it has been for most Americans throughout our history, about having our own space. It acknowledges the reality of global competition, which has set the bar higher for education and for performance. This is going to have a huge effect on the course of our lives: more deferred gratification, different patterns and sequences for acquiring the necessary knowledge and skills interwoven with new styles of family living.

Whether or not individuals, be they Democrats or Republicans, want this change does not matter, to some extent. We cannot correct past mistakes overnight. We cannot immediately be richer. Our young people cannot instantly acquire the depth of science and engineering and math skills we have untended for decades. The Tea Party movement springs, in part, from a looming apprehension of the enormity of this change, and a fear of it -- justified in the sense that they and their children and grandchildren, like other ordinary Americans and theirs, will be making whatever sacrifices change requires. For emerging now is a new elite unlike any we have seen since the pre-Reformation Catholic Church and before that the Roman Empire: well-educated, well-to-do, well-traveled professionals from many nations who identify more readily with each other than with their countries of birth. Indeed many move back and forth from place to place and across cultural divides. More to the point, this very thin top layer of global society will not have to make sacrifices.

Here you will find American elites in their twenties and thirties. This is my daughters' generation, and they are so well-traveled that their struggle is not with racism or sexism but with calibrating a sense of national identity or indeed deciding to have one at all. Again this a place where the Tea Party movement has got the future first. Beyond a fear of the inroads, against the individualism that has so long circumscribed us, the Tea Party is galvanized by patriotism, a sense that what defines us as Americans could be slipping away and an anger that the powerful don't care about that anymore. This is the Tea motivation, at heart, for quoting the Founding Fathers and reading aloud the Constitution. From what I've seen, however, most (if certainly not every one) of our young globalists are finding their American roots, after all.

So what will define us in the twenty-first century? Other than a reconsidered patriotism? What is the new American Dream? What will make this new social compact worth keeping? Although I have been thinking about these things for a long time, I decided to write after President Obama said (or didn't say) a number of things about change and the dream at a town hall discussion on jobs, broadcast and moderated by CNBC, at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., three days ago. First of all, as I've suggested before, Obama takes the long view.

"I think the challenge right now is that I'm thinking about the next generation, and there are a lot of folks out there who are thinking about the next election."

One of Obama's current political problems, however, is that Americans in a pinch are not taking the long view. Here is how one woman put it to Obama at the Newseum:

I have been told that I voted for a man who said he was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class. I'm one of those people, and I'm waiting, sir. I'm waiting. I don't feel it yet. And I thought, while it wouldn't be in great measure, I would feel it in some small measure.

I have two children in private school. And the financial recession has taken an enormous toll on my family. My husband and I joked for years that we thought we were well beyond the hot dogs and beans era of our lives.

But quite frankly, it's starting to knock on our door and ring true that that might be where we're headed again. And quite frankly, Mr. President, I need you to answer this honestly, is this my new reality?

Obama does not answer her question -- any more than he answers the question of the law school graduate with hefty student loans who cannot get a job and asks, "Is the American Dream dead for me?" As a master of the art of controlling the interview, Obama responds with his own talking points. He says the things he wants to get out there before the American public. In answer to the woman with two children in private school and soon off to college, he talks about the overhaul of the student-loan program. He touts the new credit card regulations (the woman does not have a credit card) and health-insurance reform. To the law-school grad, Obama mentions the new student loan repayment caps (relevant) and tax breaks for small businesses (not so much).

But along the way, waxing prolix and enjoying himself, President Obama, undoubtedly without knowing it at that moment, redefines what it means to be middle class in America.

And if we are able to keep our eye on our long-term goal -- which is making sure that every family out there, if they're middle class, that they can pay their bills, have the security of health insurance, retire with dignity and respect, send their kids to college; if they're not yet in the middle class, that there are ladders there to get into the middle class, if people work hard and get an education to apply themselves -- that's our goal. That's the America we believe in. And I think that we are on track to be able to do that.

No mention of job security. Or owning a house. In a certain neighborhood or suburb. With a two-car garage. And a motor boat in the driveway. This is not a middle class defined by either job (blue collar, white collar) or consumerism, but how they live their lives: honoring their personal responsibilities (paying debts), relying upon the community (shared cost of health care and retirement), applying themselves, educating themselves and their children. For the last half century, middle-class America has been driven both by the acquisition of things and the working harder and harder to pay for them. As a baby boomer, I was born into a middle class America that had not bought anything for ten years; as I grow older, I see just how much my parents' and grandparents' experience of the Depression shaped my own childhood. So I can envision "the middle class without stuff" that is being reborn, for it seems clear (at least to me) that Americans are not going to be either willing or able to spend us to prosperity.

Prosperity redefined is part of the new American dream. It's the wealth of the mind and the shared community, continuing education at the neighborhood or downtown school instead of shopping at the mall. This is a lot easier to write, of course, than to live. Such a cultural shift will have consequences better not to know about now. And regardless of what happens, millions of our fellow Americans will not find good jobs again, and among those millions many will not be able to adapt. It is a terrible price to pay for a transformation brought upon us both by the inexorable turning of historical forces and by ourselves. And all of us -- our military excepted -- have grown soft and unused to sacrifice and are going to have some adjustment issues with hot dogs and beans.