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To dream the 'American Dream'

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U.S. President Barack Obama wasn't even born when the Soviet Union sent the infamous Sputnik rudimentary satellite into Earth's orbit in 1957 and he isn't old enough to remember President John F. Kennedy. But it is Kennedy he was using as a model in his state of the union address this week and his comparison between the challenges the United States faces today and those they faced more than half a century ago is apposite.

Remembrances of Kennedy are everywhere. It is just 50 years ago that Kennedy stirred a nation with possibly the best-remembered inaugural address in more than a century. Only Franklin Roosevelt's recession-era appeal to Americans that the "only thing we have to fear is fear itself" comes close to the resonance of Kennedy's speech. "Ask not what your country can do for you," he said. "Ask what you can do for your country."

Kennedy's words were part of a general call to a renewal of American strength at a time when it had been sorely tested. It was the height of the Cold War, a war that the Soviet Union appeared to be winning.

Within just three months of Kennedy's inaugural speech, the Soviet Union would again beat the Americans in the space race as Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin flew into space and circled the globe. American technology was nowhere close. The challenge to America's superpower supremacy led to Kennedy's promise to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade: a promise that was successfully kept by Neil Armstrong eight years later.

A sense of that history permeated President Obama's speech. His self-identification with Kennedy was never more obvious. Kennedy, at 43, was the youngest man ever to be elected to the presidency. Obama was just four years older. Kennedy was the first and only Catholic to be elected. Barack Obama is the first and so far only African-American to achieve the office.

When Kennedy made his appeal for selflessness and public duty, he knew he was speaking for a new generation. Obama, similarly, represents a new generation of power today.

"This is our generation's Sputnik moment," he told Congress at the start of his speech in the peculiar and melodic cadences that are the hallmark of his oratory. It's a style that while different from the clipped Bostonian accent of JFK reflects it nevertheless. Just as his fashionable plain blue suits, white shirts and subdued ties echo Kennedy.

The Kennedy mantle is a mantle President Obama covets and he is right to do so. As he explained, this is his generation's "Sputnik moment" because the supremacy of the United States is yet again threatened by a usurper. President Kennedy faced the implacable Nikita Kruschev, a man who he would soon face down during the Cuban missile crisis as the Soviet Union placed nuclear-tipped rockets on America's doorstep.

President Obama faces a resurgent China, which is building a blue water navy to rival America's, has an economy that is growing far faster than the United States' and it has a far bigger population.

China, as President Obama told his audience, now hosts the biggest solar power research facility in the world.

His response -- for America to have one million electric vehicles on the roads by 2015 and to have 80 per cent of the country's electricity delivered by clean energy by 2035 -- didn't quite have the appeal of putting a man on the moon within a decade. But the nature of the challenge in the early 1960s and the nature of the challenge today is different.

Fifty years ago, it was the United States' military preeminence that was threatened. Today, the threat is economic. The competition with China is about whether American ingenuity and innovation can beat China's strength in numbers of population.

President Obama's answer was that the United States needed to "out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world."

On its own, this is prosaic stuff, but President Obama knew the standard he was trying to reach and, while his words will not be remembered as Kennedy's were, he ended his speech with a stirring idea: the idea that dominates American political thought.

Obama evoked the classic "American Dream," the idea that everyone had the opportunity to succeed, even a black American. "This is a place you can make it if you try," he said. It was a thorough appeal to the broadest constituency of all, the same belief Americans have in themselves that Kennedy appealed to a half-century earlier.

The challenge to China is in these words: "The idea of America endures. Our destiny remains our choice."

In the Cold War with the Soviet Union, America won. President Obama is saying that in the competition with China don't count America out. The speech was a rallying cry. It might succeed.


Nicholas Hirst is CEO of Winnipeg-

based television and film producer,

Original Pictures Inc.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 27, 2011 A10

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