Our Stalingrad Moment

More than anything, I was struck last night by the generational aspect of the President’s address. Sorry, young people: galvanizing the under-30 set makes great campaign material, but now it’s all about helping the aged. You heard it in the feel-your-pain reference to the bygone era of local factory jobs. You heard it in the human-interest stories of heroically repurposed near-retirement-age businessfolk. Above all, you heard it in the surrealistically repurposed Sputnik Moment, which became in Obama’s hands a way to get older Americans to imagine that the reliable, stable world of their past was actually a cavalcade of personal reinvention and societal reeducation.

Young Americans? To the extent that we heard anything, we heard that our future is cut and dried: science and math education, because that’s what they do in China; a career as a scientist, an engineer, or a science and math teacher, because in South Korea those people are celebrated as “nation builders;” a lifetime of work spent in an economy propped up by spending, subsidies, and a perpetual partnership between big government and big business.

Cheer up, kids. You’re the ones you’ve been waiting for. Remember?

Which generation’s Sputnik moment is this, again? If we’re fated to work with metaphors from the middle of the twentieth century, let’s at least choose one that resonates with people who are coming of age in the twenty-first.

Say, perhaps, the Hitler Finds Out metaphor. From the vantage of the young, for the President — and, indeed, virtually the entire leadership class of the United States of America — this is their Stalingrad moment: the moment at which the vast armies they continue to maneuver around the gigantic battle map turn out to be gone, destroyed, never to return again. The bold challenges, the arbitrary and random numerical goalposts (80% more of these, 100,000 more of those) — it all gave off the disconnected feel of denial-driven fantasy. It’s not that the emperor has no clothes. It’s that he has no divisions.

Young Americans already face a future defined by an inescapable reckoning. They already tend to look at our grand entitlements as phantoms, as dead entitlements walking. They already know the problem isn’t that we have too few college graduates, but that we — like Tunisia and (gasp!) China, to mention a few — have too many for the market to absorb. And they already know that all the science and math in the world can’t serve to nourish our personal and cultural convictions about the purpose and character of American life in transformed times.

When will Obama’s generation reckon with that?

  1. Busy System Admin

    Obama is stuck in a very unenviable position.  He can’t win one way or the other, because the current situation was already set in motion over several generations.

    That’s not to exonerate him.  So far his approach seems to be, well, since we’re going down anyways, why not go down in style.  Pedal to the metal!

    I highly suggest reading up on generational theory and generational dynamics to understand the much larger picture of where we are.  Even a full-on Tea Party president and Congress wouldn’t be able to do much more than slow the oncoming crisis.

    The good news (if you want to think of it that way) is that we’ll survive, somehow, and may come out stronger after the crisis passes.  And, it is during these times of crisis that we have the most influence on future events.  The decisions we make during and after the crisis will set the course for the next few generations, in a way which they themselves will be largely unable to change.

    So, we live in interesting and consequential times.

  2. Rob Long
    C

    So, James, why is he so popular with the very demographic he’s busy impoverishing? Where are the young people to wage this generational war? They’re all busy pinning Obama ’12 buttons on, it seems to me. If you’re right about the direction of things — and I think you are — when, how, where, and who in the younger generation is going to gin up the courage to say anything? To let this president know that about 80% of the “investments” he talked about last night are direct theft from their future paychecks?

  3. Diane Ellis
    C

    Rob Long: So, James, why is he so popular with the very demographic he’s busy impoverishing? Where are the young people to wage this generational war? They’re all busy pinning Obama ’12 buttons on, it seems to me. If you’re right about the direction of things — and I think you are — when, how, where, and who in the younger generation is going to gin up the courage to say anything? To let this president know that about 80% of the “investments” he talked about last night are direct theft from their future paychecks? · Jan 26 at 9:12am

    I don’t think he is especially popular with the young anymore.  I don’t have a poll to point to, but we’ve seen a plethora of articles describing the disillusioned youth who expected a more tangible “hope and change.”  My purely anecdotal evidence suggests that folks in my own demographic are more than a little bit embarrassed about having been so enthusiastic about him in 2008.

  4. Kennedy Smith

     It was gut-wrenching when Hitler found out about the Olbermann firing.  For all you children out there behind the screens, Sputnik is the name of the Tuscon Sheriff.

    The whole speech was a holding pattern and a defensive posture.  Take initiative, young freshmen.

  5. Kennedy Smith
    Diane Ellis, Ed.

    ]My purely anecdotal evidence suggests that folks in my own demographic are more than a little bit embarrassed about having been so enthusiastic about him in 2008. · Jan 26 at 9:23am

    My own beloved sister (Cleopatra Licentia Smith) would agree with you.  Obama was the first vote she ever cast, and, well, lesson learned.

  6. Katie O
    Rob Long: So, James, why is he so popular with the very demographic he’s busy impoverishing? 

    It doesn’t matter what he says, so long as he sings with inflection. 

  7. Katie O
    Kennedy Smith

    Diane Ellis, Ed.

    ]My purely anecdotal evidence suggests that folks in my own demographic are more than a little bit embarrassed about having been so enthusiastic about him in 2008. · Jan 26 at 9:23am

    My own beloved sister (Cleopatra Licentia Smith) would agree with you.  Obama was the first vote she ever cast, and, well, lesson learned. · Jan 26 at 9:30am

    Same here Kennedy. I think having their first vote count toward the historical moment of electing the first African American President was a big part of the equation.

  8. EJHill
    Rob Long: So, James, why is he so popular with the very demographic he’s busy impoverishing?

    Diane Ellis, Ed.  … we’ve seen a plethora of articles describing the disillusioned youth who expected a more tangible “hope and change.”

    First, young people have no concept of wealth creation. My parents were “depression” babies born in the mid-1920′s and boy did they let you know how good you had it. To this generation, their parents’ hardship tales usually start with “And we had to guess where the song started on those cassettes, baby!”

    Secondly, I think there was a hard core group of lefties that believed Obama would enforce his vision à la Chavez and that all of us in the Party of No would realize that the jig was up and we’d all slink away. They didn’t believe in the slightest that two short years later that would become the Party of Hell, No! and so many independents would join us in opposition.

    Try Googling the phrase “vote against their own interest.” It’s a fantasyland of hatred. They understand wanting eternal adolescence. They don’t understand concepts of real liberty.

  9. EJHill
    Kennedy Smith:   For all you children out there behind the screens, Sputnik is the name of the Tuscon Sheriff.

    Sputniks are not to be confused with the Skutniks. And the Skutniks are very vital to a State of the Union speech and have been since the father of all Skutniks in 1982.

    (Mistyped the name. Corrected now.)

  10. Standfast
    Kennedy Smith:  … Sputnik is the name of the Tuscon Sheriff.

    Jan 26 at 9:28am

    Thats the funniest thing I’ve read in a couple of weeks.  By the way, is “Sputnik” still beeping on and on across the airwaves?

  11. Stuart Creque

    James, you have to call it the “Downfall Moment.”  The clip from Downfall isn’t when Hitler found out about the failure of the siege of Stalingrad — it’s when he found out that he no longer had armies to defend Berlin.

    There’s a sort of historical analogy for the American middle class today: in 2008, we found out that we might not have jobs, and by 2010, we found out that we might not even get to keep our homes.

    For the generation that includes my three daughters — a recent college grad, a college junior and a high-school junior — the two-step is, Stalingrad is finding out that there might not be money for college without taking out big student loans, and the Downfall is finding out that there aren’t any jobs for new grads to pay off their student loans.

  12. James Poulos
    C
    Stuart Creque: James, you have to call it the “Downfall Moment.”  The clip from Downfall isn’t when Hitler found out about the failure of the siege of Stalingrad — it’s when he found out that he no longer had armies to defend Berlin.

    There’s a sort of historical analogy for the American middle class today: in 2008, we found out that we might not have jobs, and by 2010, we found out that we might not even get to keep our homes.

    For the generation that includes my three daughters — a recent college grad, a college junior and a high-school junior — the two-step is, Stalingrad is finding out that there might not be money for college without taking out big student loans, and the Downfall is finding out that there aren’t any jobs for new grads to pay off their student loans. · Jan 26 at 10:48am

    That’s right, Stuart. Going with Stalingrad was supposed to convey my ebullient optimism.

  13. Patrick in Albuquerque

     You ask: “When will Obama’s generation reckon with that?”

    My answer: Nevahhh! Their little minds will remain forever incapable of wrapping around the truth that their policies cooked the golden goose.

  14. Johanna Egan

    I’m twenty-eight years old, so I guess that makes me part of “Obama’s generation.”  I have no plans to benefit in any way from Social Security or Medicare.  When Paul Ryan talks about changes to these programs, I welcome his ideas.  My mostly liberal group of friends, however do not spend any time thinking about the national debt, Social Security, Medicare, Obamacare, etc.  Meanwhile, they wonder why their health insurance premiums are rising.  I think that most of them voted for Obama on the mantra “Bush bad. Obama good.”  The decision was that simple, and if the Republicans don’t nominate someone who can cut through the glossy shine Obama tries to put on his policies, they will vote for him again.

  15. Kenneth

    Young voters have, for the most part, never produced anything, never been significantly taxed, never come up against the regulatory Leviathan.  They have, for the most part, lived off someone else’ labor and had everything handed to them.  So, of course, Obama’s socialist agenda resonates – it’s all they’ve ever known. 

    Repeal child labor laws and levy income taxes from the very first dollar and they might change their airy political thinking.

  16. Aaron Miller

    James, remember that our generation waits until later to get married, on average, and has fewer children. That must factor in somehow with political awakening.

    Also, there’s the question of whether our generation is more or less likely to seek change through government or apart from it. Part of one’s “faith in the system” includes faith that the system is capable of self-repair. Many people I know remain content to generally ignore politics because they feel utterly excluded from the process. Every two years we vote, and the behemoth rolls on.

  17. Joseph Eagar

    Oh come on.  Plenty of us young people are well aware of what’s being done to us.

    I believe people in my generation voted for Obama because he was cool, and black.  I voted for McCain, but I admit I did like Obama for a while (until he started treating American citizens like two-year-olds).

    I think it’s sinking in to my generation: we won’t have the standard of living the boomers had, unless we work really, really, really hard.  But no politician represents us; they’re all terrified of the boomer population and the elderly.

  18. raycon and lindacon
    Joseph Eagar: I think it’s sinking in to my generation: we won’t have the standard of living the boomers had, unless we work really, really, really hard.  But no politician represents us; they’re all terrified of the boomer population and the elderly. · Jan 26 at 1:59pm

    As a pre-boomer, I can say that it was us and the boomers and those who followed us, and the politicians we elected, who learned from FDR that we can borrow ourselves to prosperity.  Of course, there would never come a reckoning, at least in our lifetimes.  As for our progeny, we never did care that much what would be left for them (you).

    As one of those who spent a lifetime of political frustration, watching it all happen with no meaningful political alternatives, realize that your frustration at your circumstances isn’t much greater than ours.

    I feel your pain.

  19. James Poulos
    C
    Rob Long: So, James, why is he so popular with the very demographic he’s busy impoverishing? Where are the young people to wage this generational war? They’re all busy pinning Obama ’12 buttons on, it seems to me. If you’re right about the direction of things — and I think you are — when, how, where, and who in the younger generation is going to gin up the courage to say anything? To let this president know that about 80% of the “investments” he talked about last night are direct theft from their future paychecks? · Jan 26 at 9:12am

    It’s tempting to embrace the theory that the young voted for Obama because he’s Obama. But we also need to consider that the root problem is the fact that the young are in the habit of voting reflexively, almost instinctively, against Republicans. What will change that? Ball’s in our court.

  20. K T Cat

    I can’t wait for Steiner to come and save us.  When he shows up with a few trillion in his pockets, things will stabilize and we’ll get back on track.