Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy uttered the words that would come to define their presidencies ("New Deal" and "New Frontier") in their acceptance speeches at the Democratic National Conventions.
FDR said simply that he would offer a new deal to the American people. By that he meant that the cards had been stacked unfairly, and that he was going to reshuffle the deck in favor of what was called in the 1930s "the common man". It is not clear whether he was consciously labeling his policy program "the New Deal", or whether that moniker arose gradually from his use of that phrase.
JFK was more deliberate, explicit and self-conscious. The New Frontier, he said, "was not a set of promises; it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them". He explained in his speech that the United States, and the world, stood on the precipice of a New Frontier, a world fraught with great danger in the Cold War standoff between two nuclear-armed superpowers, and of great hope with the opening of space, the ending of colonialism and the opportunity for the superpowers to lift up the Third World.
FDR reshuffled the deck. JFK reached for the stars from a strong platform.
Barack Obama campaigned on change, and used his acceptance speech at the convention to emphasize it. More recently, he has referred to rebuilding the decayed foundation of this country, and doing so in a manner that is relevant for the 21st century...i.e, the New Foundation. "Change," after all, is only a process; a New Foundation is the result all that change is about. As president, it is not only fitting, but proper for his theme to be restated as the end result, not a process.
The "New Foundation" is, I submit, the theme of the Obama presidency.
President Obama took office in a country with a decaying physical infrastructure -- levies breeching, bridges collapsing, roads requiring repair, an outdated mass transport system, school buildings crumbling. It was allowed to decay because of ideology and politics: in order to provide tax cuts for the wealthy and not to make deficits even worse, all these investments were delayed or ignored, and the people who needed them did not have political clout.
This president also took office in a country with a decaying human infrastructure -- students falling behind world standards in math and science, inadequate health care access, public health systems neglected, high-wage jobs being shipped offshore, embezzlers sapping billions in savings from thousands and thousands of people. Again, the reason was ideology: tax cuts for the wealthy took precedence, and enforcing regulations to the detriment of the wealthy was taboo.
Mr. Obama also inherited a country with a decayed financial and economic system -- banks collapsing, an auto industry disintegrating, credit and private consumption paralyzed, burgeoning unemployment, home foreclosures, retailers closing their doors, borrowers defaulting on loans, rising national debt and gaping deficits, increasing dependency on Mideast oil, an environment being despoiled. Again, ideology with a heavy dose of corruption were the key culprits.
This president also found a country with a decaying moral integrity -- increasingly disliked and distrusted by the rest of the world, extolling wealth accumulation in the hands of the few, torturing, illegally wiretapping, ignoring mining and environmental regulations, censoring and altering scientific information, using signing statements as an excuse not to enforce or execute laws faithfully, race-baiting and immigrant bashing. Once more, ideology, in this case coupled with arrogance and rank stupidity, was to blame.
None of this needed to have happened. Each could have been prevented, or addressed in a timely manner so that rigor mortis would not have set in. But, it did. The only benefit of decay and disintegration of the old is that it provides space not only to rebuild the foundation, but to transform it, so that it fits the requirements of the modern world, i.e., the New Foundation.
President Obama's policies are designed to create that New Foundation, in every area from education to health care, from energy to the economy, and from the rule of law to a new partnership with countries around the world.
It is not surprising that what FDR called the "forces of reaction" have joined to block the New Foundation, just as they did in the 1930s to block the New Deal and again in the 1960s to stop the New Frontier. "The purpose of conservatism," said William F. Buckley, Jr., that movement's intellectual, "is to stand athwart history".
Those who benefit from the old order, from the imams in Iran to the gay-haters in churches, from the Taliban to the bank bonus-babies, always fight to the death to protect it, even if it is a smaller piece of a decaying pie, because it is the only pie they know. That is why the fight is partially generational, and why the millennials, those born after 1980, who experience and see the world so much differently, must not be silent or cowed into submission by lies, innuendo and fear. They, after all, will inherit it.
If President Obama is to build the New Foundation, he will have to use new political techniques to do it. That is the subject of another article. Otherwise, the forces of reaction will "win", but it will be a pyrrhic victory since the existing infrastructures will rot so badly that they will collapse, and the country along with it.
The change required to create the New Foundation is painful, but so is the status quo.
Only the former, however, is also hopeful.