According to President Obama, Friday – the day that twenty first graders were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School – was the toughest day of his presidency. Usually, that’s a sign that a defining moment has arrived.
Our Presidents’ legacies are shaped by how they deal with these defining moments.
For George W. Bush, it was 9/11 – a defining moment he used to encourage Americans to go shopping while their government constructed a massive surveillance state and launched an unwinnable “War on Terrorism” that’s killed hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of people around the world and bankrupted our nation at home.
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For FDR, it was the Great Depression – a defining moment he used to pass the New Deal. It redefined capitalism and constructed a “We Society” that cares for the old, the sick, and the impoverished and balanced economic power for workers through federal protection of labor unions.
Today, Bush’s legacy is tarnished and FDR’s legacy is celebrated – all because of how each used their respective defining moments.
But often, history’s take on defining moments is more complicated. Jimmy Carter knows this lesson too well as he used the defining moment of his presidency – the energy crisis – to push for revolutionary change in America. He succeeded, although Reagan rolled back Carter’s energy legislation virtually from the first day of his presidency.
With the economy crippled by inflation and gas shortages, Jimmy Carter used a nationally-televised address to discuss what he called a “crisis of confidence” afflicting America.
Unlike how Bush two-decades later would call on Americans to indulge themselves after 9/11 when really what was needed was deep introspection about America’s role in the world, Carter challenged the nation and spoke bluntly about the crisis America was facing.
“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, and close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption,” Carter said. “I’m asking you for your good and for our nation’s security to take no unnecessary trips, to use carpools or public transportation whenever you can, to park your car one extra day per week, to obey the speed limit, and to set your thermostats to save fuel.”
Carter concluded, “In the days to come, let us renew that strength in the struggle for an energy-secure nation.”
Very rarely do American Presidents speak in such a tone to the American people. Very rarely, especially nowadays, do Presidents tell the inconvenient truths and challenge the nation to fundamentally change the way it operates. By giving that speech, Carter gambled.
Because during defining moments, gambles are often what a president must take.
Today, most of Carter’s significant achievements when it comes to energy reform are forgotten. The National Energy Act provided crucial tax credits to renewable energy and gave homeowners across American incentives to go solar. And the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act was instrumental in giving alternative energy providers access to the market. For a short time, it looked like Carter’s gamble to take on the wealthy, entrenched interests of Big Oil during his defining moment had paid off and the nation would, indeed, fundamentally change. But, it was short-lived. In the 1980 election, Republicans ran Ronald Reagan who struck
a much different tone with the American people. Rather than the straight-talking challenge Carter threw down, Reagan promised America painless indulgence. Not only did Reagan not try to curb excess, he embraced it by saying the United States is “exceptional” and thus is entitled to anything it can get its hands on. The result is that we’re still hooked on Saudi oil and overheating our planet.
The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary is President Obama’s defining moment. And just like FDR and Carter, the President is using this moment to lay down the gauntlet to the American people.
In a memorial speech on Sunday for the 26 victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, President Obama asked the question of whether or not we as a nation are doing enough to keep our children safe. And he answered that question with a solemn, “No.”
Acknowledging that this is the fourth time in his presidency he’s had to console victims of a mass shooting, the President said, “We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.” Though the president did not mention any specifics about gun control, he did call on all of us to confront the difficult choices ahead. He asked, “Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, the politics are too hard?”
And speaking directly to those who say that unregulated guns are an expression of freedom in America, the President asked, “Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year is somehow the price of freedom?”
What the President chooses to do, just like what Bush, Carter, and FDR chose to do with their defining moments, will define his legacy.
Like FDR, JFK, and Carter, Obama is choosing to challenge us rather than coddle us. As he said, “In the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens…in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this. Because what choice do we have?”
This is exactly what our nation needs. For far too long, tragedy after tragedy, we’ve ignored the harsh realities of our violent gun culture. We’ve failed to address the fundamental question of why we as American have a right to a gun, but not mental health care.
And that has not even begun to talk about the issue of wealth inequality, which exploded under Reagan, and makes far worse both violence and mental illness.
And this time, the President’s challenge won’t be derailed by a Republican promising the world as Carter’s was.
Obama doesn’t have to deal with re-election, meaning the powerful and cash-flushed gun lobby can’t define this moment on their own terms through presidential politics. Let’s hope the President understands this is an enormous opportunity.
While, there is no single silver-bullet solution to these massacres, President Obama can start by leading the charge to take assault weapons, high-capacity ammo clips and other weapons of war off the streets. He can start by investing more in community mental health programs to give help to those in need before their madness consumes another town. And then he can get down to addressing the underlying cause of much of the causal relationship between violence and mental illness, which is wealth inequality.
With twenty 1st graders set to be buried in the coming week, now is not the time for delayed debates and half-measures. Now is the time for a leader who will use this defining moment to usher America out of this dark age of violence toward a new renaissance of peace and community.
This is the kind of moment in time when nations move forward and presidential legacies are created. Let’s hope this president takes the challenge and follows through.