John F. Kennedy was not a physicist, so when he said that America would put a man on the moon within a decade, he was not making a scientific prediction. JFK had confidence in American technology and the competitive spirit of man to get us there. Had he lived and had no American walked on the moon by 1970, he could have said, "Hey, you have to shoot for 10 to get 8" and no one would have faulted him for being ambitious in his goals.
Barack Obama is not an industrial engineer. This should not keep him from going to Detroit and pledging the nation to the goal of producing within a decade a fleet of non-petroleum using cars. He doesn’t need to know how fuel cells work or how hydrogen might be able to power a car or the limits and possibilities of electric batteries. He needs to set a large goal and inspire the nation to meet it. It helps that by the time Obama is sworn in next month and can travel to Detroit as president, the government may have effectively nationalized the auto manufacturers.
One of the problems with most environmental goals is that they are too remote: A pledge to reduce greenhouse emission by 2050 means a lot to a scientist but I can’t get my head around it. And, part of the job of the presidency is to inspire people, to motivate them, to give them a goal they can get their head around. Engineering cars that do not run on gas may or may not be technologically feasible in such a short time but the goal is clear and solid and the timetable has a horizon we can grasp. I can’t imagine 2050. I am planning for ten years out.
Another aspect of presidential inspiration is to find episodes in the history of the nation that give a sense of direction to our future. Obama should make his ten-year pledge not in Washington but in Detroit and he should do so standing in front of a factory that was around in the 1940s. As the U.S. prepared for war, and when the full fury of the war broke out at Pearl Harbor, the auto factories of Detroit were converted from making cars to making tanks. It did not take ten years. It did not take ten months. If they could make such a huge transformation then, who is to doubt that we can make a large transformation today.
Yes, America needs to stabilize the financial markets. And, yes we really do need to do something about global warming. But, to meet both challenges (and others) Obama needs to find his voice and inspire the nation. The Depression on the 1930s did not end the second Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office. In one sense, the Depression did not even end with the enactment of the New Deal: Only the full employment brought on by World War II really ended the economic Depression. But, Roosevelt did end the small "d" depression the moment he told the nation that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself.
In that same first Inaugural Address, Roosevelt said less famous words but words that captured his sense of the office he had just undertaken and its powerfulness during the crisis of his day: "We do not distrust the future of essential democracy," FDR said. "The people of the United States have not failed. In their need they have registered a mandate that they want direct, vigorous action. They have asked for discipline and direction under leadership. They have made me the present instrument of their wishes. In the spirit of the gift I take it." Here was a man whose hope could not be broken and who had no sense that he and the people he led were not up to the task history had given them.
Today, as George W. Bush appears smaller every day, it is vital that Obama appear as big as he can. But, like FDR and JFK he must give concrete policy expression to the rhetoric of hope. Last week we wrote about funding for mass transit and building high speed rail lines. Both are important but shooting for the technological moon in Detroit, recalling one of the nation’s finest hours in WWII, and restoring hope to the American people, that is the essence of presidential leadership.