Last night’s State of the Union address was a tour de force. Obama laid out a series of progressive ideas for moving the country in the right direction. He focused on creating manufacturing jobs and building job training programs; he sought to lower the cost of education and expand community colleges; he had an unfortunate “drill, baby, drill” moment, but tempered it with a commitment to alternative energy. It sounded very much like the export-based, green economy that many people in the urban policy sphere have been pushing for over the past four years. As Jason Schupach, design director of the National Endowment of the Arts, tweeted last night, “Someone’s been reading @Bruce_Katz‘s policy briefs!” Indeed, it sounded like the White House had cribbed many of their ideas from the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program.
Yes, this is the vision of the United States that so many of us want, but how we get from here to there is still up for debate. Obama’s speech was plainly nostalgic for a time gone by and often referred to the need to “reclaim” the values and practices of generations past. Obama spoke about his grandfather, the Depression, the Hoover Dam with a sense of awe, as if the pinnacle of the United States’ achievement was in the past. To Obama, for the United States to go forward, we need to look back. And while he clearly feels like the United States’ best days occurred last century, he dismissed people who talk about the United States’ decline as not knowing “what they’re talking about.”
But what if the false memory of the 20th-century United States has been crippling us in the 21st century? Could the state of the union be stronger if we stopped looking back as if the United States once was perfect? The 20th-century American economy plundered the earth, kept half of our population out of the work force, and ensured discrimination against minorities. And a dated sense of American exceptionalism, which Obama indulged in plenty, seems to encourage a sense of entitlement that has allowed us to wage unnecessary and brutal wars. This have-our-cake-and-eat-it-too mentality has encouraged everyone to own two cars and yet complain about our foreign oil addiction.
It is time to create a new culture and character that is distinct and forward-thinking. What about an America that is, above all else, resourceful? It’s time to recognize that we need to do more with fewer natural resources, rather than constantly expand (or drill and mine until we’ve used up everything nature has provided). Obama made no mention of transportation in his speech — how can we escape this crucial aspect of the economy, whether for shipping goods or getting people to work? We also need to be mindful of our human resources, and recognize that everyone doesn’t just deserve to have a shot at a job, but can actually contribute something back to our cities. At the end of the day, outsourcing is so painful because it fails to take advantage of the latent capital residing in our cities.
Part of the reason why there is so much partisan bickering in Washington is that both parties have different views of how to live within our financial limits. We need to recognize that the American lifestyle, as it was conceived and refined in the 20th century, is part of that problem. The American Dream is for many an illusion these days. Instead of cars and single-family homes, we need to talk about buses and rental units; instead of building the Hoover Dam, let’s talk about tearing down highways; instead of suggesting that we should look to the military for leadership, let’s talk about block captains. There’s another America out there that is resourceful and efficient and increasingly organized; Washington would do us a favor by recognizing it instead of patronizing the past.
Diana Lind is the former executive director and editor in chief of Next City.