Obama's plan isn't about dollars, it's about dreams


Except for that election thing last November (oh yeah, and that primary thing earlier last year) I guess President Barack Obama just can't win. For the first month of his presidency, his critics said that by telling the truth about the devastated U.S. economy, he was spreading way too much gloom, that he was scaring consumers away from spending and businesses away from investing. Then on Tuesday, Obama delivered an address to a joint session of Congress, and it wasn't just audacious -- the man did write a book called "The Audacity of Hope," remember? -- but downright bodacious. He told America that we can cure cancer, harness energy from the wind and from the sun, and send more of our children to college than any other nation. And so those same cynics who just said the new president was too doomy and gloomy now asked: Oh yeah, and how to plan to pay for all of that hope? Which is why the poor guy just can't win. 

Specifically, the Wall Street Journal: "How's he going to pay for it?" Newt Gingrich said he actually liked Obama's rhetoric but in the next breath calls it a "higher-tax, weaker-economy, fewer-jobs" blueprint. Matt Drudge seems to have ceased being...well, whatever Matt Drudge is exactly, to become a mathmatician, informing us all that Obama wants to spend $11,833 for every man, woman and child in America, that he wants to raise taxes by $1 trillion. None of them seemed to be listening to what the speech was really about on Tuesday, because it wasn't really about dollars at all. It was about dreams.

Just take one of the most talked-about passages of the speech, where the president said that we "will launch a new effort to conquer a disease that has touched the life of nearly every American, including me, by seeking a cure for cancer in our time." Some ridiculed the line as out-of-place, over-the-top. The Politico quipped, sort of, that Obama "laid out an agenda Tuesday that would do just about everything but cure cancer.Actually, he promised to try that too." Right-wing bloggers were much more harsh.

It's true -- Barack Obama cannot cure cancer. By as president, he has the power to do something else that's almost as amazing: To help America to dream big again. Curing cancer is incredibly important, but the real goal is to convince America that we are still the kind of can-do nation that can virtually wipe out a disease, just as we were the nation that put the first man on the moon, invented the computer and then went out and created rock 'n' roll just for fun. My generation, Barack Obama's generation, was born into a nation that thought it could do anything, only to watch that fade in a matter of a few short decades -- finally crushed, seemingly, by a sledgehammer of addition to foreign oil, Wall Street hucksters, and evan cynical torturers.

Remember President John K. Kennedy? On May 25, 1961, he told America: "First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth." Our new president was just three months old when JFK uttered those words, a prediction that came true thanks to a massive effort, supported by government yet creating thousands of jobs in private industries (as well as some vital down-to-earth high technology). And it gave the nation something else: A lofty goal...and a common purpose. Did you hear echoes of Kennedy when Obama said on Tuesday: "By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world."

Because I did. I heard a dream.

Over the last three decades, we've all been grappling with the meaning of the American Dream, the meaning of hope. I learned this over the last year as I researched my new book, "Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future." A key to the Reagan myth was that the 40th president -- who told Americans reeling from stagflation and a hostage crisis overseas -- told the nation frequently that "America's best days lie ahead." His audience was receptive -- but under his Randian, government-is-the-problem philosophy it was a quick and slippery slope from Reagan's so-called sunny optimism to rampant consumerism, to magical thinking that there is plenty of oil and no need for energy research. America's best days were really rooted in the common purpose of something like the moon mission, something that was lost under Reaganism, especially as practiced by wayward disciple George W. Bush.

Make no mistake, Obama believes in honest accounting and he seems sincere about sharply reducing the deficit once our economic crisis has passed. But inherently he knows that it in a weird kind of way it may not matter a great deal in the long run if the deficit is $500 billion or $10 trillion, that America is worthless without our capacity to dream, to set impossibly lofty goals and then achieve them. And why wouldn't he know that, since he knows that the dreams of another man, Dr. Martin Luther King, were so important in getting him to the position he is in now. Times change, issues change. We've been to the moon and we've marched slowly toward racial equality. But to be America, we will still all need to learn to dream, all over again.