Calls to work together for the common good during the current crises have been emanating at breakneck pace from the Obama administration. Academics discuss how to get the results of a Roosevelt, and not a Carter.
Historian Gil Troy of McGill University in Montreal also finds that instructive, noting that gearing people up for a metaphorical war can be an effective way of asking them to sacrifice.
In recent decades, “We’ve had an unfortunate tradition for decades of presidents soothing us,” he said. “We have sort of an addiction to having our cake and eat it too. Clearly Bush missed the moment after 9/11. That was a time when Americans might have been willing to give something up. The nation was ready to take collective action.
“Now, Obama has an opportunity to succeed where Bush failed. There’s nothing like a financial meltdown to sober people up! You don’t have an enemy like after 9/11, but you have more pinched circumstances. Obama’s sense prior to the crisis was that Americans were yearning for this sense of community, sense of engagement. Now he may have the conditions that will allow him to achieve that.
“In Obama’s inaugural address, he said America is a place where people are willing to work fewer hours so their friend won’t lose their job. That was a very explicit call to sacrifice — much more explicit than Kennedy’s ‘Ask not what your country can do for you.’ We haven’t had that kind of specifics since Franklin Roosevelt.”
Well, we did have Jimmy Carter, whose failed presidency coincides with Obama’s coming of age. Troy is convinced the new president has learned from his peanut-farming predecessor’s missteps.
“Carter’s mistake was his rhetoric of sacrifice was disconnected from
a sense of hope,” he says. “He allowed himself to be tagged as the
man of malaise. He was preaching the gospel of limits. What FDR did that Carter missed was preach a gospel of self-sacrifice in the context of ultimate salvation.
“FDR’s message was we’re rolling up our sleeves and making sacrifices because we’re going to have a better tomorrow. With Jimmy Carter, you got the sense that we were being asked to put on another sweater, but we would still be cold.”
In contrast, Obama is overtly linking the need to sacrifice with the hope of a better future. If he can continue that balancing act, Troy believes people just may respond. “Americans don’t want to be told we are entering an age of limits,” he said. “We want to be a nation of limitless hope. That’s in the American DNA.”