Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Barack Obama, the State of the Union, and the Winter of our Discontent

For the sake of full disclosure, let me say that I like Obama. In fact, I like Obama a lot. I voted for him, I gave money to his campaign, and I worked for his campaign as a legal observer in New Hampshire on Election Day. That complex and nuanced worldview of his makes me suspect he's one of the smartest presidents we've ever had. This isn't to say that I support all of his policies wholeheartedly and unquestioningly - Afghanistan is one I've been questioning lately - but given the thought processes he brings to bear on the issues, I tend to pretty much agree with his agenda.

Tonight's State of the Union address reminded me of all of this. Our president sees the big picture, how all the pieces fit together, and what we need to do to get those pieces on the table. There are definitely obstacles to such an ambitious agenda, even a really terrific speech doesn't change that. It's going to be tough - but it's doable.

Last week, taking a long view of things, it was hard to see the U.S. as anything but a superpower on the decline. But after tonight's speech, I can see another way to fit where we are now into the bigger picture. Here's what I hope the historians have to say in a couple of generations:

After the fall of the Soviet Union, America found itself in a previously unheard of position: a sole superpower, a hyperpower, even, facing a world without a single nemesis that could rival the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War seemed to vindicate the supremacy of capitalism and of American military might. America's leadership went on a deregulation binge, and in the absence of a powerful rival the old Cold Warriors who still formed the bulk of the country's military policy establishment started looking for ways to project American military power even further across the globe.

By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, capitalism woke up with a hell of a hangover. The military establishment came dangerously close to irreparably botching the war they'd chosen (Iraq), and found themselves even closer to disaster in the war they hadn't planned on (Afghanistan).

America adjusted. Saying farewell to an attitude that promised opportunities without consequences, they elected a president who saw problems with solutions. Obama reigned in the banks and took his military policy cues from professional soldiers, like Petraeus and McChrystal, instead of civilian ideologues like Rumsfeld and Armitage. Looking at what needed to be done, he harnessed the energies of a dynamic democracy of 300 million people behind an ambitious agenda that launched America into the twenty-first century, leaving the twentieth century behind. And as the policies worked, the fearmongering of Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, and Michele Bachmann largely ceased to resonate with voters who were once again optimistic about their country's future.

I don't expect this all to happen just because Obama made a good speech. But the speech was a reminder that it can happen, and that for all its troubles, America remains a place with most of the best advantages that any country can have. After a speech like that, it's hard not to feel at least cautiously optimistic about the future.

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