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
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
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]