In those days, we managed to ease the pain by agreeing to temper the dream. With the New Deal, we toned down the adamant commitment to absolute individual fulfillment. We woke up our dormant response to the comfort and warmth of the communal. We discovered we could savor realistic contentment; we didn't need to keep panting after triumph. Many of us in the bleachers learned to enjoy the game as fully as those few behind home plate. By reordering our inner attitudes, we produced the outward political will to remake the nation.This seems like throwing the baby out with the bath water. I understand his point to be American exceptionalism and our national optimism inherently lead to an unsustainable ambition. I'd say there's nothing wrong with a bit of humility tempering our ambition (both nationally and personally), but I don't think reducing US consumption down from unhealthy levels and instilling some sense of individual fiscal prudence means that we have to redefine ourselves as ordinary and shun any idea of American exceptionalism. Nor do we need to turn America into a pessimistic land, we just need to be a lot more careful in the future about not linking a general sense of optimism to self-destructive activities, from invading Iraq to assuming that housing prices could rise forever.
Can we do it again? The contrast between presidents now and then may complicate the process. Franklin Roosevelt was a beneficiary of privilege gained by unbridled private ambition. Hence his moderating of such ambition made him a persuasive role model. Obama's project has parallels to the New Deal, yet his biography is almost the opposite of the New Deal architect's. It suggests the invincible self, predestined for barrier-smashing. His legend sees him marching from the back of the bus straight into the Oval Office. Without intending to, he has made the trajectory of the superstar even more prescriptive. He can't help stoking over-the-top American optimism, whose very excess is seductive and addictive.
From that addiction we are not easily weaned. Quite a number of us may have voted for Obama not just to prove ourselves post-racist but by way of denying the debacle of the unmitigated American dream. We voted to reinstate the impossible as a national idea, a legitimate obsession, a must for you and me.
Therefore, I put the question to you and me: Do we have the courage to free ourselves from the fixation on the exceptional? Shall we try to dream a dream less extreme? Can we give up the mania that must crash into depression?
Lastly, culling Obama's biography to look for clues as to whether his administration will be more successful than FDR's is a futile exercise, a bit like using those standardized personality tests to measure the potential for greatness in the NBA.