Getting to 2017
The question I am asked more than any other these days is: How on earth are we going to make it to 2017? It’s black humor, really, ironic hyperbole; no one really believes the United States will suffer an existential catastrophe between now and the day Barack Obama leaves office. Certainly we’ve seen nothing to compare with the cascading horrors of 1979, for example—a year that began with gas rationing, proceeded to a nuclear-plant meltdown, saw 52 American diplomats taken hostage in Iran, and ended with the Soviets invading Afghanistan.
The people I’ve talked to lived through 1979; they know this. They also know that the calamities visited upon the United States during the Carter years were reversed in relatively short order during the Reagan years (following an extraordinarily painful recession). The worry is very real, though, as is the portentous sense that we may be on the knife’s edge—that bad things are going to happen in the future as a result of decisions that are being made now or because of decisions that are not being made. So it’s not actually whether we’ll make it until 2017 but whether we are going to reap the whirlwind in the years after 2017.
Domestically, one key question is whether Obama-care will have so knotted up the health-care system by the time the president departs his office that even a triumphant Republican presidential candidate with a hospitable Congress will find it impossible to untangle.
Internationally, the question is what message Obama’s determination to end “Bush’s wars” in a manner that seems to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory transmits to the world’s most disruptive actors—not to mention the message sent both to our friends and enemies by our president’s inability to decide whether to challenge or appease those actors.
Militarily, the question is whether the draconian cuts to the defense budget (which are, it has to be said, the result of a bipartisan consensus) will impede the next president’s ability to project American power, which would both ill-serve and ill-befit the leader of the Free World.
Culturally, the question is whether the president’s determination to increase the public’s interaction with and dependency upon the federal government (through health care, through the direct management of student loans, and through increasing control of public education) has hastened the depletion of the nation’s precious social capital.
Today’s pessimists have a point when they say that the United States is not the same country it was 35 years ago. The citizenry had a different and more modest set of expectations at the tail end of the Carter years. Americans had lived through far more difficult times from, say, the late 1930s to the late 1970s than Americans have lived from 1975 through 2014—the Great Depression, three long wars in which more than 10 million young American men were compelled to serve and in which the country suffered more than a half million deaths overall, the constant threat of the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc, the social upheavals of the 1960s, the assassination of one president and the resignation of another.
This was a tougher and hardier country then, and arguably more resilient. That is not a toughness we should seek to impose now, as it was a by-product of pain and suffering and agonizing sacrifice. But it was a blessing that such greatness could emerge from such trial, and it only follows that the period of relative tranquility through which we have lived since the election of Ronald Reagan has not forged us in the way the nation’s greater difficulties forged those a few decades older than our president. Has the nation that produced the Greatest Generation now become the nation that produces the Lives of Julia instead?
I don’t think so. Pessimists in the late 1970s learned a lesson they might be in danger of forgetting now: It never makes sense to bet against the American ability to bounce back, to reconstitute the nation’s strength and ingenuity after a period of retrenchment and a grave failure of national confidence. We’re not Julia yet. Even eight full years of Obama won’t be enough to rewrite the American character.