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Hope and Change Again, If Only for a Moment

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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I’m tempted to say that every president has a moment when he breaks his arm patting himself on the back. With George W. Bush, it was, of course, the moment when he landed a plane on the deck of a carrier and spoke before a banner that proclaimed “Mission Accomplished”; for Barack Obama, it was probably the moment when he secured the Democratic nomination and it became clear that he was going to be the next president of the United States:

Generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth. This was the moment -- this was the time -- when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves, and our highest ideals.

It is the moment, in other words, when the president decides that he has won a historical victory, and the hardest battles are all behind him. And I’m tempted to say that this is, inevitably, when an administration goes badly astray. These are the moments at which disasters -- such as Fallujah and the 2010 midterm elections -- are written into the future in indelible ink.

Obama’s first two years in office had some genuinely historic moments. He passed a massive new health-care law, crossing it off a century-long left-wing wish list. He bailed out the automakers, passed a massive stimulus bill, signed a major financial reform law. Then came the 2010 elections, and Barack Obama stopped giving speeches that rang with optimism and inevitability. The key notes became anger, frustration and bemusement at the political enemies who were keeping him from leading us to the Promised Land.

Tuesday night’s State of the Union address was a return to the style of Young Barack Obama -- now performed in a wistful minor key. The same optimism about what politics can do, the same faith that the American people will follow politicians with the right dreams -- only now, he’s not going to be that leader. Like Moses, all he can do is bequeath the dreams to a successor who will actually reach those golden shores.

State of the Union speeches are frequently derided as laundry lists, but the washing machine has been broken for five years, and it’s clear the Maytag repairman is not going to arrive before November. Freed from the necessity of living up to any promises, or even describing them in much detail, Obama didn’t have to sort the laundry. All he had to do was show us an advertising supplement, with glossy photos of a lovely world where everything is clean and beautifully organized.

The iconic moment of the speech was when he compared cancer to the moon landing:

Last year, Vice President Biden said that with a new moonshot, America can cure cancer. Last month, he worked with this Congress to give scientists at the National Institutes of Health the strongest resources they’ve had in over a decade. Tonight, I’m announcing a new national effort to get it done. … For the loved ones we’ve all lost, for the family we can still save, let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all.

Now, curing cancer is not like putting a man on the moon. In fact, few things are, which is why this hackneyed analogy should be retired. Getting to the moon was an engineering solution to a known ballistics problem. Don’t get me wrong -- I am filled with awe at the folks who did it. But those folks started with a pretty good idea of what would be involved in getting there and back; the problem was designing a system that could do it.

“Curing cancer” isn’t even a single task; there are many kinds of cancer and many different ways that a cell can go wrong. And, of course, you’re working within the human body, which adds a whole new level of difficulty. The problem for oncologists is not simply killing tumor cells; we already know lots of great ways to kill tumor cells. Unfortunately, most of them will also kill the patient.

It was very reasonable for JFK to proclaim that if we were willing to spend enough money on the project, we could get to the moon in relatively short order. We don’t even know if a cure for cancer is possible, much less how much money and time it will take to get there. We’ve been pouring money into the National Cancer Institute since 1971; in the last 10 years, we’ve spent almost half the total budget for the whole Apollo program. And I don’t know any expert who thinks that we’re just another decade, or $50 billion, away from curing cancer once and for all.

That doesn’t mean that government research into cancer is worthless; I’m all in favor of it. Cancer is terrible, and better treatments would be a priceless boon to humanity. But promising certain cures in exchange for more money is not science; it’s quackery.

Obama no longer needs to deliver on such promises; he only needs to proclaim them. (And what fun the proclamation part has always been!) So he gave us a speech filled with things that ought to be done by someone else -- someone else who will have to get bogged down in the petty, hampering details.

If I sound overly critical, let me say that I like this Obama better than the hectoring, somewhat petulant president of the last few years. Most of the things Obama wants, I want, too, though we may differ on the details. He has always been at his best sketching out the dreams we all share and asking us to dare to dream a little bigger. The president of Tuesday night was the candidate I supported in 2008, and darned if I wasn’t glad to have him back, even if he looked a little older, wiser and sadder.

It was a very good speech to set us off into the madcap primary spectacle that is almost upon us. The 2010s have been a grim decade in which most of the Western world seems to be lurching back and forth between rage and despair. Our politics reflects that, with the primaries devolving into a contest to see which Democrat can hate banks the hardest, and which Republican can demonstrate the steeliest determination to keep immigrants out.

I don’t say that to argue the parties’ respective positions; that's for another column. My point is that the central message of their debates has not been “Here’s how the future can be brighter than it’s ever been,” but rather "Here's a plan to return to the status quo, circa 1964." I cannot think of any more profoundly dispiriting commentary on what we’ve come to.

You can argue that Obama dreamed too much, too confidently, and that led inevitably to the gridlock that has characterized the last five years of his administration. I wouldn’t even argue back very much. But a nation needs its dreams, and its dreamers, if only to point the way for the practical folks to blaze the trail. Dreaming too big, and planning too little, is an almost surefire route to disaster. But so is failing to dream at all.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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