Obama-ReachingforHist 02-25

Remaking America, several big dreams at a time

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AP Photo WHGH101, WHGH107


AP National Writer


When times get tough, big ideas happen. "In a crisis," John F. Kennedy said, "be aware of the danger — but recognize the opportunity."

Theodore Roosevelt’s Square Deal was born of Gilded Age injustices. Depression begat FDR’s New Deal. The unease of the Cold War incubated Kennedy’s New Frontier, the social tumult of the 1960s gave us Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and the deep malaise of the late 1970s uncorked the Reagan Revolution.

Now: Another big crisis, another big chance. And whatever you think of his aims and methods, Barack Obama has made clear that he is seizing it. "This is our moment," he likes to say. Now he must demonstrate that that’s true — or lose major credibility.

Addressing the nation Tuesday night with a fragile balance of reassurance and challenge, Obama was nothing if not ambitious. He promised what amounts to a fundamental restructuring of U.S. society for the 21st century: reformed banks, better schools, universal health care, new energy sources, millions more jobs, even a cure for cancer.

Rare is the modern chief executive who does not hunger to remake American society in his image. "History reminds us," Obama said, "that at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas."

Obama was quite specific about what he wants to accomplish, even if he was less obvious about how to get there. ("I’m still having trouble doing the math here," his campaign rival, Sen. John McCain, told CNN).

Taken together, a clear theme emerges from his flurry of proposals that gladdens progressive hearts and chills conservative blood: Like presidents who came before, he is taking a crack at distinctly redefining Americans’ relationship with their government.

"With Obama during the campaign, change was sort of a cotton-candy word: You bit into it and what was there?" says Stephen Hess, a political veteran who worked in the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations.


"In this speech, he packaged change," says Hess, now a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution. "And it has a much more progressive tint than we thought it did."

Defining history while in the middle of it is difficult. But whatever he eventually does, Obama is casting this moment as a pivot point in American history — a time when the principles of a smart market economy correcting its own course are inapplicable and, worse, naive.

"He sees this emergency as a time to reshape the country," says Theodore Sorensen, one of Kennedy’s top advisers who was instrumental in shaping the famed 1961 inaugural address that defined the mission of the New Frontier.

Sorensen was struck by Obama’s use of the economic crisis to open channels to other issues — from the imperative of education as a patriotic duty to universal health care and a recalibration of environmental issues. Ultimately, each impacts the economy.

"He’s talking about not just bankers and re-lending. He’s talking about the country itself making fundamental long-term changes," Sorensen says.

To frame his goals, Obama invoked the always appealing image of Americans dreaming big and having their biggest achievements ahead of them. Trouble is, his next steps, as outlined, are far too interventionist for Republicans’ comfort. "Force the necessary adjustments," he put it at one point.

Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz, whose latest book chronicles the age of Ronald Reagan, says Obama, with Tuesday’s address, "exorcised" Reagan and the trickle-down theory of economics by repudiating it left and right.

Just as Reagan, taking office in 1981, articulated decades-old GOP principles in his own way, so, too, did Obama synthesize varied progressive principles into his plan of action.


"We’re getting an update of Democratic ideals," Wilentz says. "The age of Reagan is over. Republicans ... have nothing. Ideas that once commanded the heights of national politics 30 years ago are now in disarray."

More than the specific proposals he still must deliver, though, Obama is showing — like the Roosevelts, Kennedy, Johnson and Reagan before him — that he understands and is willing to interpret the role of government in American life.

That’s no small task in a country founded upon the rejection of tyranny and always uncomfortable with exactly how much government it has — and wants. And it is what makes eras of crisis and upheaval — be they economic, political or social — so crucial.

"That’s why these are extraordinary periods. They lay down the parameters of government," says Bruce Schulman, a Boston University historian and author of "Reawakened Nation: The Birth of Modern America, 1896-1929."

While Tuesday night’s address — and, presumably, the budget that follows it — unite the many strands of progressivism afoot in the land today, the speech also was brimming with messages to comfort Americans concerned that society’s foundations might be shifting underneath them. Don’t worry, Obama said — "we still possess in ample measure" those qualities that make us uniquely American.

"People want to hear that we’re going to do some things, but they’re not going to be radical departures from our system. That’s what Franklin Roosevelt does. He says, ‘We are continuing in an established American tradition,"’ says Eric Rauchway, director of the Center for History, Society and Culture at the University of California-Davis.

Obama, he says, tried to strike the same balance as his big-dreaming predecessors — man of action, grounded in American values that never go away.

"When he talks about saving the banks, he doesn’t say, ‘We’re going to dramatically change the way banking works in America,"’ Rauchway says. "He says, ‘We’re going to save the banks.’ Which is the same thing that Roosevelt said."

For Sorensen, who knows about such things, "the speech responded to what the times required." And whether the actions do as well — that a chapter that’s Barack Obama’s to write.

"Even when times were good it was recognized that the roof had a lot of holes in it," Sorensen says. "But no president or Congress in the last 20, 30 years has had the courage or wisdom to fix those holes. It’s tough to fix them now with the rain pouring in."

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