Nearly four decades ago, our 38th President quipped "I’m a Ford, not a Lincoln." Gerald Ford could perhaps be forgiven for setting diminished expectations. America was in the doldrums, his predecessor had just been chucked out of office for covering up a burglary, and there was a certain practicality in aspiring to the workaday reliability of a family car rather than the grandiosity of a luxury vehicle. Besides, his name was Ford, he was from Michigan, and not even his most fervent supporters were reserving him a space on Mount Rushmore.
Last night, when President Obama downshifted the branding of his State of the Union from last year’s soaring "Winning the Future" to the more prosaic "Built to Last," the move seemed much more contrived.
The content of the speech retained the President’s trademark optimism and grandiloquence. There was the same litany of center-left economic policies, exhortations to national greatness, paeans to the heroes in uniform and the ordinary Americans who succeeded against adversity that we’d heard in years past. But this time the message was wrapped in rhetoric meant to recall America’s heritage as an industrial powerhouse at least as much as to prepare the nation for the uncertainties of a post-industrial future.
The president’s clear focus in the speech was jobs. The legacy of his administration and its future both depend on reversing the economic downturn he inherited when he took office and bringing unemployment down below 8% by the November election. Everyone understands that, which twists the politics into an uglier configuration than usual. Even if Republicans fundamentally agreed with the President’s policy approaches—which they most assuredly don’t—they have little incentive to help him succeed. In fact, the more likely the President’s proposals to create jobs and economic growth, the more determined his opponents are to block the legislation in Congress for fear of granting him any kind of victory.
This dynamic has hamstrung the administration (and the country) for years, even as unemployment has remained persistently high. There are signs of improvement, but most of the progress has been concentrated at the top: the stock market is back, corporate profits are surging, the job market is turning around for skilled workers and college graduates.
That’s good, but not good enough. The president’s electoral chances rest on the recovery spreading beyond the lofty heights to the mainstream of America. "Jobs" in this context means manufacturing and construction—industries decimated by economic forces beyond the control of individual firms or workers such as outsourcing and the housing finance crisis. Communities that depend on these jobs to support middle class family incomes have been the most hard-hit in the downturn, and their political preferences are likely to decide the next election.
This constituency is not interested in winning the future if it means losing the present. The opportunities of the global knowledge economy are vaporous abstractions to a laid-off construction worker. The rhetoric of hope and change and competitiveness only resonates if it is accompanied with a paycheck.
If President Obama is unable to make tangible progress because of political obstruction, he at least needs to create an emotional connection to America’s working middle class—something that has not always come as naturally to him as to his two immediate predecessors. He is fortunate in that neither of his presumptive opponents is blessed with the common touch, but he needs to use both his office and his oratory skills to create a favorable context for his message.
Thus, "Winning the Future," a slogan fit for a world-beating biotech or software company, gives way to the Ford-ish (in both senses) "Built to Last." Like one of Detroit’s hot-selling hybrids that packages Silicon Valley smarts into a body of classic American industrial design, Obama is counting on a combination of innovation and rebranding to lead a rust-belt resurgence before his administration ends up on the scrapheap.
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Rob Salkowitz is author of Young World Rising: How Youth, Technology and Entrepreneurship are Changing the World from the Bottom Up. His new book, Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture, will be published by McGraw-Hill in 2012.
[Image: Flickr user stevoarnold]