There are two trillion dollar decisions bouncing around our nation’s capital these days: healthcare and Afghanistan. While each significant in their own right, they are chapters in a larger story: the re-definition of American identity.
Ironically, one initiative intends to improve and save lives while the other wages death and destruction—achieving as yet unspecified objectives. Both cost about the same within their projected ‘lives’ per the Congressional Budget Office and estimates leaking out of the Pentagon and the White House. While no one is suggesting it is an either/or choice—the sublime notion of fiscal discipline notwithstanding—these choices illustrate what is likely a transformational time in American history. Do we continue to assert our hegemony in the global system (with or without the cover of national security), or do we turn inward and take care of our own house?
Even if we succeed at each—admittedly a foolish assumption—even if we actually take our healthcare system back from the stranglehold of the health insurance industry, pharmaceutical companies, state-based fiefdoms, malpractice attorneys, et al, and achieve affordable, accessible healthcare for all; or that we crush al-Qaeda, the Taliban, build a democracy in Afghanistan, or whomever/whatever it is we’re fighting for today, is it worth two trillion dollars and thousands of lives? Are hegemony and/or healthcare the right priorities? What about education, energy, climate change, economic development, scientific research, human rights, international law, or the dependability of the global financial system (to name a few other choices)?
The larger issue is what makes a nation powerful and successful today—cherished by its people and envied by the world? Which of the laundry list of initiatives collectively succeed in meeting this standard? Which America will emerge in the next five years, ten years? What does it mean for our children and grandchildren? Will there be any trillions left for them to spend? Will they even be spending dollars? Are we staring at the sunset of the American empire or its re-birth? Do our leaders understand the enormity of the moment? Is Obama the next Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, or Reagan; presidents who transformed our national identity and kept the American dream alive? Or, are we destined to fumble our way recklessly forward toward a crisis where we are defined by powers, elements, and interests beyond our control?
The moment is Obama’s, notwithstanding the march of members of congress to the lectern to grab their seconds of fame, or the pundits who fan the flames of absurdity to claim the title of last loudmouth standing. They will still be there second-guessing everyone when this sequel is written. It is time for Obama to sit alone and contemplate the larger issue: how to keep America on top, cherished by her own and envied my many more, keeping the American dream alive. The answer may or may not include healthcare and Afghanistan.