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?