One tumultuous year into his presidency, President Obama remains a man without a mission. Without a mission to space, that is.
In seeking to refocus our attention on the miseries of health care, foreign wars, and political discontent, the once pragmatic Obama has evolved into a true downer. Most recently, he has gone so far as to scale back our nation’s once-inspiring effort to slip earth’s surly bonds.
Despite early reports that President Obama would maintain George W. Bush’s plan to return humans to the Moon by 2020, it now seems clear Obama’s NASA will bear little resemblance to the organization’s eventful past. Obama’s plans to privatize space travel—$6 billion to fund commercial space taxis, for example—are intriguing, but still leave us without the thrill and sense of direction bestowed by space programs of past decades, especially JFK’s 1962 pledge (honored by his nemesis, Richard Nixon) to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. No space-exploration plans have been left on the table, and Obama has essentially turned over our fate in the space race to the private sector.
If there were ever a valid comparison between our president and John F. Kennedy—one that Obama and his advisers aspire to draw—the analogy has been shattered once and for all by this decision. Even with an ambitious agenda and personal qualities many leaders covet. Whatever his weaknesses, Kennedy gave America an unmistakable sense of direction when he entered the United States into the space race against the Russians, putting before everyone’s countenance a goal that was not only novel but outlandish—and seemingly impossible.
Meanwhile, president Obama has made nostalgic mention of the past and ethereal hopes for the future, but his choices do not reflect the mind of a believer in true progress—that is, progress toward a goal. “What the administration calls a ‘bold new initiative,’” The New York Times reported this morning in its wrap-up of Obama’s scrapped plans for a return to the moon, “does not spell out a next destination or timetable for getting there.”
But what’s the point of mentioning “progress” without proffering a goal to progress toward? With one year passed after the conclusion of Obama’s campaign to inspire voters with rhetoric and promises, the droning hope-and-change mantra has not yet subsided. But Obama’s most deeply held beliefs remain an enigma, and the notion of change remains a word—not a clear vision of the road ahead.
Indeed, Kennedy did not promote the abstract ideals that pervade Obama’s agenda. Rather, he acted in a way that compelled America to choose hope and to embrace change, with an agenda that directed us toward both: The space program served as a paradigm for government initiatives with an identifiable end point. The moon was just one of many destinations set before the nation.
While Obama always seems to direct attention to himself, Kennedy skillfully deflected attention, even when announcing “the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.” Kennedy’s boldness and youthful recklessness did not bridge his distance from the mission. At no point did he ask the American people to place trust in him personally. Any American success in space would be “by the people and for the people,” as modern progressives are so fond of saying. Incidentally, any failure would not rest on Kennedy’s shoulders—his was the role of cheerleader, not fall guy.
Obama’s unrelenting self-reference has yielded many cringe-worthy moments. While evidently still impressed by his successful election, the president still makes constant reference to the difficult circumstances he inherited. But most of Obama’s disastrously self-referential moments could be avoided by mere turns of phrase, making their deliberacy all the more alarming. Distant and cold, Obama just can’t pull off the sheer gratuity of Kennedy’s speech, as when he answered his own rhetorical questions about the wisdom of a trip to the moon in his initial space-race challenge at Rice Stadium in September of 1962:
But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why 35 years ago fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?
Many years ago the great British explorer, George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said: "Because it is there."
In what is ostensibly a purely rhetorical—not principled—argument for a moon visit, Kennedy’s boldness made a powerful point. Human nature, it seems, is most rightly ordered when the mind is fixed on a goal. Aimlessness—the great torture of socialist countries—is as un-American as the Soviet flag.
While Obama is oft accused of being elitist, or for that matter, Gnostic about his inner goals, Kennedy took ownership of the words he read, and of the continuation of American history. Obama uses flowery rhetoric to gloss over difficult realities.
Kennedy did quite the opposite when he declared that we chose the moon as a goal “not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”
Goals are always before us—the successful completion of work each day, a meaningful relationship with our family members, and, say, saving money. Achieving those goals is hard, but judging their distance from our grasp is not. Unless Obama sets before the nation a tangible goal of the likes of an adventuresome space program, he will continue to be seen as a directionless president. He has nowhere to go but up.
Kevin Staley-Joyce is a junior fellow at First Things.