by Joshua H. Liberatore
Whether it’s due to his relative youth or the frequent campaign-trail comparisons to John F. Kennedy, POTUS fancies himself a harbinger of the future. Not that we’re complaining. By most accounts anyway, science seems to have been restored to a place of respect and proper funding, sans political meddling. The unpleasant realities of imminent climate change and our pernicious energy dependencies are being recognized and addressed with greater clarity and political will. For the first time in what seems like forever, we have an Oval Officer who talks about building more and better trains and cleaner cars without embarrassment or trepidation. Meanwhile, POTUS’s insistence on carrying a BlackBerry even enjoyed a brief period of national fascination. And these are just examples from the realm of the concrete. For those of us who dwell in the fantasyland of words, however, POTUS’s frequent verbal homages to futurity, and our role in shaping it, are equally compelling.
Progress is rarely easy, and I know people in this room understand that. Sometimes it takes months to learn that your ideas just won’t work or years to learn that it will. Sometimes the funding dries up or the investors walk away. Sometimes you have to fail before you can succeed. And often it takes not just the commitment of an innovator, but the commitment of a country to innovation. Often, what’s required is the support of government, recognizing that our future is what we make of it; our future is what we build it to be. (March 23, 2009)
POTUS constantly speaks of “new high-paying jobs of the future,” “our clean-energy future,” and “a health care plan for the future,” but it’s the economy, understandably, that’s received top billing in his rhetoric concerning the future. And certainly many Americans – not least in my native Michigan – would like nothing more than to fast-forward into that bright future.
Because I know that if we can tap into that same ingenuity and resilience right now, if we can carry one another through this difficult time and do what must be done, then we will look back and say that this was the moment when the American auto industry shed its old ways, marched into the future, remade itself, and once more became an engine of opportunity and prosperity not only in Detroit, not only in our Midwest, but all across America. (March 30, 2009)
In his major policy speech on the economy, delivered at Georgetown University last week, POTUS deployed the word “future” no fewer than 16 times. A mere sample:
We all know that the country that harnesses this new energy source will lead the 21st century. Yet we’ve allowed other countries to outpace us on this race to the future. I don’t know about you, but I do not accept a future where the jobs and industries of tomorrow take root beyond our borders. I think it’s time for America to lead again. (April 14, 2009)
When contemplating the future, POTUS even waxed prophetic, invoking an age-old parable to illustrate his vision going forward. Remember the “house built upon a rock” metaphor from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:24-29)? POTUS wants to build the American House of the future on similarly solid ground:
It’s a foundation built upon five pillars that will grow our economy and make this new century another American century: number one, new rules for Wall Street that will reward drive and innovation, not reckless risk-taking; number two, new investments in education that will make our workforce more skilled and competitive; number three, new investments in renewable energy and technology that will create new jobs and new industries; number four, new investments in health care that will cut costs for families and businesses; and number five, new savings in our Federal budget that will bring down the debt for future generations. That’s the new foundation we must build. That’s our house built upon a rock. That must be our future, and my administration’s policies are designed to achieve that future. (April 14, 2009)
From the converse perspective, our future-minded POTUS has always spent ample time and verbal energy deploring the constructions and false idols of the past.
But what I have also said is, don’t come to the table with the same tired arguments and worn ideas that helped to create this crisis. You know, all of us here are imperfect. And everything we do and everything I do is subject to improvement. My Michelle reminds me every day how imperfect I am. [Laughter] So I welcome this debate. But come on, we are not going to get relief by turning back to the very same policies that for the last 8 years doubled the national debt and threw our economy into a tailspin. (February 5, 2009)
I know because I’ve seen it in cities across this country, where many of you that I had a chance to meet with, I saw how you focused on fresh ideas over stale ideology and you moved your cities forward. And I know it because I see it in the faces of Americans everywhere who are ready to roll up their sleeves and join in the work of remaking this Nation. (February 20, 2009)
To illustrate his commitment to the future, POTUS paints striking contrasts with old ways, reiterating words like “tired,” “worn,” “stale,” and even “rigid” to describe the past, while offering terms like “fresh,” “forward,” and “unprecedented” to imagine the future.
So we have a choice. We can shape our future, or let events shape it for us. And if we want to succeed, we can’t fall back on the stale debates and old divides that won’t move us forward. Every single nation who’s here has a stake in the other. We won’t solve all our problems in the next few days, but we can make real and unprecedented progress. (April 1, 2009)
Each time we find ourselves at a crossroads, paralyzed by worn debates and stale thinking, the old ways of doing things, a new generation rises up and shows the way forward. (April 3, 2009)
Too often, an opportunity to build a fresh partnership of the Americas has been undermined by stale debates. And we’ve heard all these arguments before, these debates that would have us make a false choice between rigid, state-run economies or unbridled and unregulated capitalism, between blame for right-wing paramilitaries or left-wing insurgents, between sticking to inflexible policies with regard to Cuba or denying the full human rights that are owed to the Cuban people. (April 17, 2009)
These usages all very self-conscious, often exaggerated, and sometimes specious, but nobody could accuse POTUS of projecting naïveté. His willingness to lift certain two-generations-old legal restrictions on Cubans and Cuba (the primary embargo is still in effect) and engage in a polite greeting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez during the recent Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain, have not come off without criticism, but POTUS has done his best to keep things in proportion:
I think it was a nice gesture to give me a book; I’m a reader. And you’re right, we had this debate throughout the campaign, and the whole notion was that somehow if we showed courtesy or opened up dialog with governments that had previously been hostile to us, that that somehow would be a sign of weakness. The American people didn’t buy it. And there’s a good reason the American people didn’t buy it, because it doesn’t make sense.
. . .
On the other hand, Venezuela is a country whose defense budget is probably 1/600th of the United States. They own Citgo. It’s unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States. I don’t think anybody can find any evidence that that would do so. Even within this imaginative crowd, I think you would be hard-pressed to paint a scenario in which U.S. interests would be damaged as a consequence of us having a more constructive relationship with Venezuela. (April 19, 2009)
Good for you, POTUS. We appreciate the sense of balance you bring to the international stage, however risky. Though such gestures might be viewed with suspicion by both right and left as evidence that POTUS is acting on what has been called the “make nice school of diplomacy,” one can’t ignore the logic of POTUS’s rebuttal. Even his confession, while in Europe, that he’s long been jealous of the high-speed trains of France and Germany, might be construed by reactionaries as a bald condemnation of the American way of life. Or perhaps it’s just that POTUS has recognized, publicly, that the future has already happened in other places:
Now, all of you know this is not some fanciful, pie-in-the-sky vision of the future. It is now; it is happening right now. It’s been happening for decades. The problem is it’s been happening elsewhere, not here. In France, high-speed rail has pulled regions from isolation, ignited growth, remade quiet towns into thriving tourist destinations. In Spain, a high-speed line between Madrid and Seville is so successful that more people travel between those cities by rail than by car and airplane combined. China, where service began just 2 years ago, may have more miles of high-speed rail service than any other country just 5 years from now. And Japan, the nation that unveiled the first high-speed rail system, is already at work building the next, a line that will connect Tokyo with Osaka at speeds of over 300 miles per hour. So it’s being done; it’s just not being done here. (April 16, 2009)
These accusations are misplaced, however. From his first appearances overseas to his fondness for boisterous town hall meetings at home, POTUS shows himself to be neither “soft” in his foreign policy nor “anti-American” in his general disposition. Rather, he appears to be a true believer in both the future of The American Dream and the future of the future.
There is no doubt that times are still tough. By no means are we out of the woods just yet. But from where we stand, for the very first time, we’re beginning to see glimmers of hope. And beyond that, way off in the distance, we can see a vision of an America’s future that is far different than our troubled economic past. It’s an America teeming with new industry and commerce, humming with new energy and discoveries that light the world once more, a place where anyone from anywhere with a good idea or the will to work can live the dream they’ve heard so much about. (April 24, 2009)
Apparently, it is possible to be unabashedly pro-American and at the same time not alienate the rest of the world or destroy the planet in the process. Imagine that.