Finance Column » Your Money This Week » Obama’s big dreams — and woes

Obama’s big dreams — and woes

By Gregg Fields ·
Monday, January 31, 2011
Posted 10 am ET

President Barack Obama seemed almost like a man obsessed during his State of the Union address.

"We do big things,'' he told the nation and the world. It was reminiscent of the morning-in-America optimism of President Ronald Reagan. Reagan, of course, was equally oratorically gifted. And coincidentally, he also spent his freshman and sophomore years in office battling a debilitating downturn.

Presuming Obama wasn't referring to his wife's anti-obesity campaign, it's hard to argue with his observation about the role of bigness in American culture. For evidence America can still do big things, look no further than the deficit. Its necessity or wastefulness can be debated. But there's no denying its girth.

There's no need to stop there. Bailouts? Enormous. Recession? Ginormous. Does America do big things?  C'mon: Does John Boehner have tear ducts?

Unfortunately for Obama and the occasionally -- depending on the party -- applauding Congress members, Americans are looking for big answers. And therein is Obama's problem. To be sure, deep holes can be impressive.  The Grand Canyon is proof.

But getting out of them is often impossible without a coordinated effort and some help. Just ask that Chilean coal miner who sings Elvis songs. Unfortunately for Obama, there's no Phoenix capsule to lift the economy. Even if there were, it's doubtful he could wrest the controls from Congress.

Obama did at least include some concrete proposals in his State of the Union. Probably the most definitive was a proposed freeze on discretionary federal spending.

Of course, status quo might be more comforting if federal revenues weren't routinely coming in $1 trillion-plus short lately. Running in place means falling further behind, fiscally speaking. Besides, discretionary spending is just 15 percent of the budget.

Actually, Obama was most inspiring when he was most vague. Perhaps unwittingly borrowing the Olympics' motto of Citius, Altius, Fortius, he spoke of faster trains, higher education and stronger leadership in areas like economic innovation.

"This is our generation's Sputnik moment,'' he said. Perhaps. But it's worth noting that, even with bipartisan support for the Space Race, it still took America 12 years to reach the moon.

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