(4 of 5)
This attitude of hope could work well today, for the simple reason that we need it to. It is a strength Obama can draw from Kennedy, from those days of blue-skies ambition. Every victory can be emotional ammo for the next challenge. American leaders can still tap into something powerful--the astonishing optimism, the can-do resilience of the American people. Nearly 57% of people in the country today, according to a Pew poll conducted this summer, say that "as Americans, we can always find ways to solve our problems and get what we want." Always.
5. Show the Vision
There's a reason we Americans love road movies. We like nothing more than going somewhere. Kennedy knew this. He never knew the Beatles, much less held a cell phone in his hand. Yet 50 years later, he remains a pathfinder, a man who was going places and taking us along. A poll published last year asked people to name the President they would most like to see added to the four now on Mount Rushmore. Whom do we want up there with Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and, most of all, Teddy Roosevelt? Most said Kennedy.
Obama also promised a transformative presidency. The only way for him to make that credible is to admit he didn't get it right the first time, show that he's proved himself capable of learning from his mistakes, justify that his second effort promises to be worlds better than his first. There's a reason manufacturers put NEW AND IMPROVED even on their most popular product lines.
He also has to paint a picture of what he intends to do with that extended lease on his political life.
He needs to give us purpose. We know what Kennedy wanted to do, where he was going. He showed us his dreams right there in his programs: the Peace Corps, the space program, nuclear-arms control. He wanted to win the Cold War without war. What are Obama's dreams? If there were no Tea Party, no Eric Cantor, where would he take us? He needs to show us, if not the worlds he wants to conquer, the world he wants us to live in.
On Nov. 21, 1963, Kennedy spoke in San Antonio about the Saturn rocket set for launch that December, which he hoped would surpass the Soviets' in booster thrust. He warned of the temptation to do something easier and forgo the race to the moon. He told of how little Irish boys would get themselves to climb over orchard walls by first throwing their caps over. "This nation has tossed its cap over the wall of space," he said. We had to go after it.
A week later, the grief of loss so strong, his widow said she'd asked that her husband's initials be placed on a tiny corner of one of the great Saturn rockets. She wanted it where no one could see it. Along with the eternal flame at Arlington, it was her last gift to him. Before the decade was out, a Saturn booster carried three Americans to the moon.
What is missing now is a spirit of adventure, of common purpose, a positive feeling, even romance about the times for meeting the challenges in the world, a stirring national cadence, a sense of mission.
If the election of 2012 is about the past--who got us into this mess, who is to blame--then the verdict will be mixed. If it's about how bad things are, the verdict will be simple, negative and unfortunate for the incumbents. But if it's about the future? Right there is the prospect for Obama.