With the presidential inauguration just a few days away, famous phrases from past addresses cannot help but come to mind.
In trying to select the best known there are many from which to choose. My bloleague Robert Schlesinger—probably the nation's foremost authority on inaugural addresses—may disagree with me on this point but I think it's Franklin Delano Roosevelt's 1993 reassurance that "we have nothing to fear but fear itself."
Spoken at a time when the Great Depression had not yet reached its nadir, Roosevelt was trying—in one extremely well-turned out phrase—to restore confidence to the nation, in its government if not in its economy. Nearly a century later, it may be time for a refresher course in what makes American great.
It is highly possible, and there are those like Dr. Charles Krauthammer who are probably better suited to comment on this than I, that the nation is consumed by fear. Not of nuclear weapons or terrorist attacks but that out our economic lifeblood is being drained from us and that there only alone darker days ahead.
As a consequence of decades of deficit spending, the explosion in nation indebtedness, and in particular the anemic, jobless recovery over which Barack Obama has presided these last four years, people are less confident—and there is plenty of polling data to back this up—that their children and grandchildren will have better, more prosperous lives than they themselves have enjoyed.
Can it actually be that "The Greatest Generation" passed the reins of stewardship on to the "Baby Boomers" only to have them mess things up to the point that, when combined with the efforts of the "Gen Xers," things have gone past some kind of point of no return?
Does this nameless, senseless fear account for the increase in government dependency we have witnessed over the last several decades, with too many people now comfortable in their reliance on welfare, extended unemployment benefits, heating subsidies, food stamps, even phones provided by the government? Have we passed the point where people would rather starve than take charity, once considered oddly noble in a very tough world, to reach a point where our self-reliance, as Emerson called it, has been replaced by a reliance on government?
There are a lot of studies and theories, beginning with psychologist Abraham Maslow's famous "Hierarchy of Needs," that can be applied to the current state of American affairs. As a culture, as a civilization, are the needs identified by Maslow being met and, if they are who or what is meeting them? Are we doing it ourselves or are we looking to government to be the primary provider of food, clothing, and shelter? Where do we go to find "self-actualization" and "esteem"? Does it come from within or from without?
These are pretty weighty questions to which, I will admit, I have no answers. It does however cast the effectiveness of the attacks on Mitt Romney's "47 percent" comments in a new light. Indeed it offers a whole new perspective on the recently concluded presidential campaign, which often seemed to pit the fearful against the confident, the hopeless and against the hopeful, and the self-indulgent against the self-reliant.
Has fear of the future become so strong that it is changing our national character? One would hope the answer is "no" but can anyone really be assured of that? As we rely increasingly on the institutions of government to redistribute income and property and to act as though it has planned for any contingency are we sacrificing something within ourselves that is much more important, much more vital? Is opportunity really worth sacrificing on the altar of security?
Only time will tell. It may be that this is somehow the central political divide in America today. That the people are split, unequally, between those who look to Washington for answers and those who look to themselves. If that is the case then the need for answers becomes all the more urgent while basis for finding common ground becomes harder to identify.