"This is our generation's Sputnik moment," declared President Obama in his State of the Union address. It was the first of several references -- some oblique, some direct -- to the Kennedy presidency. He issued a "challenge" to America's scientists and engineers, offering to fund an "Apollo" project for clean energy. Echoing Kennedy's iconic 1961 call to put a man on the moon "by the end of this decade," Obama set the year 2035 as the date by which America should obtain 80 percent of its power from clean energy sources. By 2015, he proclaimed, America should have a million electric cars on the road. Within 25 years, he declared, 80 percent of Americans should have access to high-speed rail.
"We do big things," said the president.
For some Americans, weaned on black-and-white images of Kennedy's romantic, soaring speeches, the presidency isn't an executive's job -- it's a knight-errant's. President Obama, who was born three months after Kennedy's moon shot address, seems to have a particularly bad case of Kennedyitis. Challenges, quests, "winning the future" -- all cast the president as the prophet who leads the nation toward a glorious destiny.
But Kennedy's leadership wasn't actually as visionary as the popular image suggests. He fumbled badly on the Bay of Pigs, at his Vienna meeting with Khrushchev (which brought on the Cuban Missile Crisis), and in the crisis over the building of the Berlin Wall. He himself described his first year in office as a series of "disasters." (Sputnik, launched in 1957, actually didn't inaugurate the moon race, but instead a competition with the Soviets to gain military advantage of Earth orbit.)
But beyond all of that, Kennedy -- and the nation -- could indulge in an adventure like the Apollo program because we could afford it. In 1961, federal spending as a share of GDP was 18.4 percent. The Great Society was just a gleam in Vice President Lyndon Johnson's eye. Medicare would not be passed for four years. The economy was at the start of a boom.
Obama has come too late -- way too late for the sort of government over which he longs to preside. Federal spending as a share of GDP in 2010 was 43.09 percent. And under Obama's budget, the national debt will double by 2020.
His address was oddly out of sync with our times -- and internally contradictory as well. He sketched his dreams for high-speed rail, electric cars, new highways and infrastructure, better schools, and solar shingles -- but then pivoted to propose a five-year freeze on annual domestic spending. (This, from the president who brought us the $862 billion stimulus.)