Saturday, January 2, 2010

In Search of the New Frontier

Fifty years ago today, a boyish, seemingly vigorous United States Senator from Massachusetts named John Fitzgerald Kennedy announced his candidacy for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination. In doing so, he vowed to propose new policies that would ask more of Americans to help get the country moving again and bring about an era of national renewal after eight years of complacency and comfort.

Few paid much attention to this announcement. Kennedy was popular in his home state, he was respected, and he was well liked on Capitol Hill. But not too many people gave him much of a chance to become the nominee. He was too young, a Roman Catholic, and had no experience in an executive capacity. But he beat the odds and not only won the nomination, he narrowly won the election of 1960 and embarked on a presidential administration to re-invigorate the social and economic fabric of the country, restore a sense of national purpose, and move forward into the future. To make America a better place, Americans would be expected to pay any price, bear any burden, comfort any friend, and oppose any foe.

When Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, after overcoming so-called handicaps such as his youth and his biracial background, he asked Americans to ponder what they could do for their country, albeit in different terms. One year into his Presidency, the economy is still stagnant, little seems to be getting done, the body politic is polarized over health care reform, and Americans are bewildered and disillusioned by change they're not quite sure they can believe in. Even the "celebrity" charge against Obama by Hillary Clinton and John McCain seems to be sticking. His star quality got people excited enough to elect him, but the young people who made it happen have largely stayed home. What happened to that sense of purpose? Why is America still pretty much the same place it was in 2008? What happened?

It's worth noting that Kennedy had his own troubles in his first year in office, from the Berlin Wall and the Bay of Pigs to a recession draining the gold reserves, and a disastrous summit with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna. Events - and Kennedy's own sense of how to get something right the second time - moved his Presidency in a more positive direction, from his deft handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the successful pursuit of a nuclear test-ban treaty to the stirrings of the civil rights movement. Kennedy was already well on his way to greatness before his ill-fated trip to Texas.

Can Obama recover from his own foibles - Afghanistan, mistakes in pursuing health care reform, the Wall Street debacle - and rise to greatness by the next election in 2012? Let's hope so.

But he does have big shoes to fill.

If we can't find a new frontier, we have to build a successful society where we already are.

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